The telephone calls never stop. Send an ambulance. Order a pizza. Set up a date. There's the man from Laurel, Md., who calls long-distance every couple of weeks to order a submarine sandwich or a pizza from his local deli.
And there was the pregnant woman who went into early labor and needed an ambulance for an emergency trip to Georgetown University Hospital.
And then there are the courtships, telephone romances that blossom over the wires.
Esther Schaeffer and a crew of 30 volunteers answer the calls 'round the clock. They summon the ambulances. They call in the pizza orders. They relay the dinner invitations.
They are the ears and voices for deaf callers: The Virginia Hotline for the Deaf.
"Some people ask us why we don't take just emergencies," said Schaeffer, director and founder of the hotline. "We believe a deaf person should be able to make every call you can make."
The hotline, which serves the entire Washington metropolitan area, is one of the few 24-hour telephone lines for the deaf in the nation that handles both emergency and routine calls, Schaeffer said.
"The biggest problem for deaf people, outside of interpreting speaking people," said Schaeffer, "is not being able to make a phone call."
It's the routine calls that most frustrate the deaf, said Schaeffer, the calls that hearing people take for granted: arranging doctor's appointments, checking on car repairs, making airplane reservations.
"Before we began this service, they had to depend on families and friends to make calls for them," said Schaeffer, the energetic momentum behind the hotline. "How would you like to tell your neighbors your personal business all the time?"
The hotline opened in Schaeffer's dining room last June with one phone extension and a video display screen for reading the calls from deaf and hearing-impaired callers.
Six months later the operation moved to an unfinished, unfurnished office at the Village Center shopping mall in Great Falls. It has since been finished and furnished with volunteer labor and donations.
Now, about 3,000 calls come in on 759-2122 each month, Schaeffer said.
When it snows, the lines jam with questions on school closings and government work shifts.
When television programs are interrupted by a newsman's face issuing a late-breaking bulletin, the calls pour in. The day the Air Florida jet crashed into the Potomac River, the hotline logged 178 calls.
"Sometimes there's just no other way for them to find out what's happening," she said.
Deaf callers "talk" to the hotline through a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD), a computer screen and a typewriter-like keyboard, the same type of equipment used by airlines for making ticket reservations. Each party plugs his telephone into a coupler on the TDD. The caller types out a question that flickers across the screen. The volunteer on the hotline types in a response that flashes across the caller's screen at home.
The hotline also can connect the callers with a third party, serving as the interpreter, the go-between.
"We repeat exactly what the deaf person types," said Schaeffer. "They have a one-on-one conversation. They don't even feel like someone is in the middle."
TDDs have been available to the deaf for home use on a wide-scale basis only within recent years, Schaeffer said. Although prices for the machines and hookups have dropped substantially, a TDD still costs about $500, keeping them out of the financial reach of many deaf and hearing-impaired people, she said.
The Maryland Public Service Commission imposed new regulations in 1981 requiring C&P Telephone Company to install TDDs on request in the home of any deaf or hearing-impaired customer. The users rent the equipment for $13 a month. Virginia and the District have no such requirements.
The metropolitan area has an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 TDD users, according to telephone company officials, who add that they have no way of compiling an actual count of the equipment. C&P said, however, it has installed 260 TTDs for Maryland customers since the new regulations were imposed.
About 27,000 deaf people reside in the Washington metropolitan area, according to Schaeffer, who is also a sign language instructor at Gallaudet College. Another 103,000 suffer severe hearing impairments, she said.
Most large federal government agencies are equipped with TDD answering services, but few local governments or retail businesses can handle calls from the deaf, said Schaeffer.
Another hotline service based in the District and serving the metropolitan area, CAPCOM, operates for deaf callers from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Callers are charged a $12 annual subscription fee for the four-month-old service, which handles both emergency and social calls, according to Richard Rosen, hotline director.
The Virginia Hotline for the Deaf operates on "faith," donations, bake sales and T-shirt sales, said Schaeffer. "We never know where the money's coming from from one month to the next." The hotline charges no fees to callers.
The hotline plans to expand its services within the next few weeks to include an informational number--759-2488--with weather details, traffic reports, news updates and community events.
"We hope that will keep our other two lines open for the emergency and other calls," Schaeffer said.
Meanwhile, volunteers keep answering the lines, from the medical emergencies to the personal catastrophes. Like the deaf woman who called last week, complaining that her lawyer had been dragging out her legal case for months.
"What should I do?" the question flashed across the screen.
"Oh, Lord," moaned Scheaffer, running her fingers through a crop of curly brown hair. "We don't have all the answers."
"But we try to think logically and give the best advice we can," she said, fingers flying across the keyboard in response.