Unreliable Technology, No Backup for Emergencies

By | March 22, 2012 | 0 Comments

We are outsourcing to foreign countries the production of the computers and chips that run nearly everything. That makes us vulnerable. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could render many of these chips useless. Or key computers could be disabled by a cyber attack.
But we need not imagine a terrorist attack − we have enough to worry about right now. Consider how first responders depend on computerized communication systems. Consider what would happen if these systems went down, just when we needed police, firefighters, or paramedics. This takes no imagination − it’s already happening.
Question: What do you get when you combine the following?
1. Fragile, computerized equipment.
2. A sagging economy, with resulting budget cuts.
3. Emergency and other city services overwhelmed by immigrants, legal and illegal.
4. Fire and police officials who are promoted on the basis of not making waves.
I’ll tell you what you get: Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Fire Department used erroneous figures boasting of short response times, and these optimistic response times were used by the City Council to justify deep cuts in the LAFD budget. As a result, fire stations were closed, and fire trucks and ambulances had to travel as much as 14 miles to respond to emergencies.
This is not a rural area, where a 14-mile trip may be necessary. It is the second most populous city in the nation, a city notorious for being spread out and having traffic-clogged streets and freeways. So trouble was sure to come. In one case, a young woman severely mangled her hand at work. Her coworkers shut off the machine, tried to stop the bleeding, preserved the severed finger, and called 9-1-1.
Despite the fact that a fire station was only about a mile away, one of the periodic outages in the computerized communications system had occurred. As a result, paramedics arrived 45 minutes later, leaving the woman in severe pain, and her finger no longer suitable to be reattached.
Of course, the woman isn’t rich and socially prominent. She isn’t a major contributor to the mayor’s reelection campaign. She’s just a human being. In fact, she’s apparently a member of one of the minority groups that politicians pander to − but in reality, do little to help. No doubt the woman will sue the city, and probably collect as much money as it would have cost to repair the communications system in the first place.
As the ad for an engine-oil filter says, you can pay me now or pay me later. Cuts to the budgets of fire, paramedic, and police services are often penny wise and pound foolish, as well as being coldly indifferent to the suffering that people will have to endure.
But wait − it gets worse. Fire Department officials were unable to keep the communications computer in working order. But working perfectly was the computer they used to simulate rapid response times, which justified severe budget cuts. This typifies bureaucracy: Produce phony data for politicians? No problem. Actually do your job? Not so much.
In other cases in which the communication system went down, LAFD dispatchers had to resort to an outdated system in which emergency-vehicle availability was indicated by sticking golf tees into a peg board. The available personnel were then notified by phone. But what if the phone system had gone down as well, as it does during even moderate earthquakes? During 9/11, the New York City phone system was overwhelmed, and it was often impossible to get a dial tone, while cell-phone service went down completely.
Many people assume that if current technology fails, we can always fall back on the previous technology. Sometimes this is true − for example, the peg board with the golf tees. And when the power fails, cordless phones are useless, but corded phones continue to work, because they run on their own low-voltage current. That is, if we are among the few people who still have a corded phone.
On the other hand, it is often impossible to fall back on the previous technology.


Many years ago, before phones were in common use, fire stations were connected by telegraph lines. Older people remember the red fire-alarm boxes that adorned light poles every few blocks. If you broke the glass and pulled the handle, a toothed wheel started to rotate. The teeth touched a contact, generating a brief electric current. For example, a red box might send out 8-2-6. Bells in every firehouse would sound these numbers. A map showed the location of every red box, including box 8-2-6.
At least one man was awake in every station. He would hear the number sounded, and know it was in his part of town but in the neighboring station’s area. So he would not sound the station alarm and summon his company. But since the neighboring company was busy, he would have to handle its calls until it was free again.
This system was primitive. It annoyed all the firehouses will bell-ringing, rather than just the one involved. It did not allow communicating the nature of the fire − for instance, a house or a school. To call a second alarm, the responding captain unlocked the red box, then used a telegraph key to transmit the proper signal.
Still, because of its primitive nature, the system was robust. It did not depend on chips, or computers, or radios, or phones. It ran on low voltage via direct wires. It was self-contained. To disable it, one would have to climb the poles and cut the wires.
But when the modern, computerized system failed, dispatchers could not fall back on the old system of red boxes and bells. It no longer exists, and even if it did, no one would remember how to use it. Similarly, if automobiles and trucks are immobilized − say by a fuel shortage − we cannot fall back on the prior technology of horses and wagons. They no longer exist, and even if they did, no one would remember how to use them. Instead, we will be reduced to Stone Age technology − walking and carrying things in our arms or pulling them in carts.
We have become dependent on technology that is extremely useful but extremely vulnerable. It is vulnerable not just to enemy attack, but also to neglect. Neglect can be the result of carelessness. But it is more likely to be the result of budget cuts brought on by a sluggish economy, and justified by high department officials who were promoted not because of their competence, but because of their willingness to go along with whatever the politicians want. Then politicians can cut vital services − and leave intact unneeded construction projects that line the politicians’ pockets with graft.
Some organizations resemble a coffee cup − the cream rises to the top. But many large organizations resemble a septic tank − the largest chunks rise to the top. I leave it to you to decide which type describes most bureaucracies run by politicians.
And a politician is a politician, no matter whether he wears an Armani suit or a fire chief’s uniform − or for that matter, the uniform of a general or admiral. Keep that in mind when you see men with three or four stars on their shoulders smile and nod approval to severe cuts in the defense budget.
On April 12 we will observe the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. That should have taught us not to rely too heavily on modern technology, but to remember that we are personally responsible for the safety of those entrusted to us. We should have learned this lesson 100 years ago, but many of us did not learn it even on 9/11. Many of us have not learned it yet.
Those responsible for essential functions − our military, our first responders, our hospitals, and our delivery systems for food and fuel − need to establish backup systems that can continue to function in the event of an EMP, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster. Wise computer users back up their files and make hard copies of essential documents. Wise government officials should ensure that there is reliable backup for our people.
The author thanks Arthur B. Robinson, Ph.D. for providing the idea for this column.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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