Wednesday, May 28, 2008
'Old' Tech Still Has a Few Tricks Up Its Sleeve...
I've been a technology/gadget freak almost my entire life, and I remember at an early age being curious about how the technology around me (TV's/Radios/Remote Controlled cars) worked. This of course influenced my career path, and led me to a Computer Science degree. However, I've never lost my love of all forms of technology, especially radio. This love of technology has also intersected with the desire I've developed to volunteer in emergency services/communications roles outside of my normal job (a desire cemented after I lost a colleague and friend on American Airlines flight 11 on 9/11).
Two years ago, I studied for and received my Amateur Radio (Ham) technician class license (K6GWM). At the time, some of my tech friends questioned the decision for me to invest in such 'antiquated' technology. However, experience in emergency situations since that time has taught me time and time again that the saying: 'When all else fails, Amateur Radio' is absolutely true. While I'm as much of a cell phone/computer geek as the next guy, I've experienced first hand how fragile those networks and connections can be. Amateur Radio, and commercial radio systems used by public safety agencies are the only truly foolproof communications methods that will work in a disaster situation. During disaster drills, I've had to explain that fact a number of times to well-meaning, but ignorant, city officials, who claim that their 'walkie-talkie' Nextel phone will be more than adequate should the 'Big One' hit.
Now, before everyone labels me a tech Luddite, I'd like to point out that there are some great examples of the synergy of old and new tech, especially in public safety agencies like the fire department. One of my volunteer roles is as a Volunteer in Prevention (VIP) with Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). Cal Fire, like other agencies of its kind, relies on dedicated commercial radio systems to perform their engine/crew dispatches, and keep in contact with fire protection resources. However, they have evolved to include new technology in all of their operations, from Geographic Information Systems (GIS), to cell phones, satellite phones, pagers, and email/instant messaging. Our VIP group in the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit has built up and staffs a fully mobile command center, with a mix of both Ham and fire radios, as well as a satellite phone connection, full ethernet switch, and a multi-function printer/scanner/fax machine. We also keep enough connectors of every conceivable size and shape on hand, to tap into local landlines, etc. Since Cal Fire is primarily known for working in wildland areas, the ability to bring both old and new tech to bear on a problem is critical.
As an example, on the recent Summit Fire, I volunteered in the Emergency Command Center, answering the information/media line, and I experienced first hand how this flexible approach to technology helped fight this fire and keep folks informed. In the more remote areas that this fire burned in, there was very spotty cell phone coverage. The dedicated fire radio system kept all of the firefighting forces in realtime contact. However, internal communication among the command staff (including coordinating of evacuation areas) was handled over the Research in Motion Blackberry network from the incident command post and Emergency Command Center. GIS systems were employed to map the fire, and put up nightly Google Maps images of the fire containment lines. During all of this, those of us manning the information center passed information to the public on landline phones (still a critical 'old tech'). When one of my roles on the first day became to be an information point at the front of Santa Clara Unit Headquarters (fielding media queries, and directing incoming command staff to the command center), I relied on both my cell phone and my Ham radio to stay in contact with my supervisor and my teammates.
All of these experiences have reinforced the tenet that I think we should all remember - 'old' tech should always be evaluated to determine how it can best serve in conjunction with newer systems, not just dismissed out of hand because of its age.