Friday, January 28, 2011

Week in Review and
Recorder Ruckus

I spent the last week in Pittsburgh with Leslie, largely away from the TV and the computer, trying to get plans solidified for our wedding in March. There's still a lot to do - plot complications abound, but the path for me appears certain. This is paradoxical when considering that the path we may be called upon by God to walk appears by definition to be uncertain - walking by faith and not by sight. As one fellow blogger commented to me, "not easy" - and this hasn't been. All I can say is that I'm looking forward to the challenges ahead.

There were a few things I did hear about, aside from the awesome fact that the Steelers are headed to another Super Bowl. Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC seemed expected; despite his intelligence and eloquence, his somewhat mercurial and sarcastic manner could only serve to grate on even the most patient and appreciative manager. The big question here is not where Keith will wind up, but where does he have left to go? I kind of feel his pain..


I've spoken my piece about the Golfburger scandal, and despite the "emergency" meeting last week that got so much attention from local pundits and others, my focus remains on the provision of truly important services such as EMS. Gene Kinsey made one essential point in comment exchanges on our respective blogs that I must agree with; as insignificant as these types of services may be to some, the principles involved in procuring these goods and services apply equally to them. That being said, I still oppose bidding out essential public safety services.


The documentary categories at the Oscars have turned into a real source of interest over the last several years. There are so many good documentaries out there that it's probably one of the toughest jobs in this "business" to pick 10 for consideration as the "best" in full-length and short subject categories. Roger Ebert gave it a good try recently.

Gasland, the documentary about fracking, is apparently a provocative choice for an Oscar nod amongst activists on both sides of the debate on the subject. One thing is for sure; it's the only documentary being considered that had it's Director here in Grand Junction to answer questions after a screening.

The Sentinel seems to be content in reporting on the controversy now, but was conspicuously absent in publicizing the GJ screening last August. What gives with that?


What really caught my attention this week was a story in Tuesday's paper about the failure of recording equipment at the Colorado State Patrol's dispatch center in Montrose. I thought about the changes in recording technology over my career in public safety communications, and how those changes also reflect how much the industry itself has changed. These changes relate directly to the ability to digitize audio and catalog it, along with the quantum "leap" downward in the size and cost of storage media.

When I started dispatching, the best logging recorders had the capability to record up to 24 separate audio tracks, along with a time code reference, onto 1-inch wide magnetic tape that would cover one 24-hour day. Storing these 12-inch diameter reels for the required backup time (usually 90-120 days) took up a lot of space.

Transcription of the necessary audio required a separate reel-to-reel deck, and a cassette recorder. Often, two or more cassettes were required in the event that recordings of both telephone and radio traffic were needed, or the requested traffic was lengthy.

With the advent of digital recording came the ability to store this audio and the time/date references onto considerably smaller Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes. This drastically reduced the space needed to preserve the required audio, and as a consequence many agencies began storing further into the past. This became important for the criminal justice system, as well as for the media in most states where these recordings are considered public records.

The problems with these devices, and their evolution up to this point, arise from the Single Point of Failure that can result from one recording component being dedicated to a certain group of audio streams, or from the failure of a tape cassette. Complicating things further was the proprietary nature of the recording equipment, format, and/or media being used.

Combining continued advancements in digital audio with the revolution in networking and connectivity, along with the continued explosion of inexpensive storage capacity, today's logging systems use redundancy at the server and storage drive level to collect, protect, and distribute audio as easily as other critical documentation.

While audio is being recorded to solid-state redundant hard drives, it is also being routed to a storage device, often off-site, for long-term archiving. Because the system uses standard computer and network components, a failure can be readily detected, off-the-shelf components can be used for replacement, and the impact to normal operations minimized or eliminated.

Authorized users and administrators can use this network architecture to identify and access the required audio, and place it in the desired order for distribution via any manner or format normally accessible from today's computer workstation, such as an audio or data CD, USB storage device, or even attached to an e-mail.

The advent of this type of technology had me scratching my head when I read the Sentinel story about the seemingly catastrophic failure at the Montrose CSP center. I wondered what kind of equipment was in use that would fail without notifying someone of the failure, but would also not need attention or "routine maintenance" for a lengthy period of time. Equally troubling is the nature of the outage where the exact time frame when recordings were not made cannot be readily identified.

I went so far as to contact Paul Shockley, the Sentinel reporter who wrote the story, to find out more. He was kind enough to reply with some additional details:
They continue to say they're still trying to determine to time (start of failure, end), but they're reasonably confident it isn't more than a month's period. The failed equipment in question was sent to CSP dispatch in Craig, where apparently they have people who can figure this out, per CSP.
Mr. Shockley also stated he's made additional inquiries to the State Patrol, and hopes to have additional information from them soon.

There's one other critical point about the advancements in technology as they relate not only to logging recorders, but to numerous other components that make up the infrastructure of 9-1-1 centers of the present and future. As computer networking, Internet connectivity, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based systems become more commonplace, the technical skills to administer radio and telephone systems will also require much more of an IT background, and the various network and PC certifications, to properly install and maintain both back room and user equipment.

The ability to do vehicle installs, diagnose and repair electronic component problems, and climb towers is no longer enough. Conversely, the person that can do all of those things AND administer mission-critical network and radio infrastructure is a rare find indeed. I'm pleasantly surprised to actually know a few of them.

Technology, processes, and people combine to make it happen. Without focus on all three, any solution imposed on the problem is not going to sustain itself for long.

Have a great weekend.

Photo Credits: (reel-to-reel logger) (DAT tapes) (modern logging system)


Jenny said...

Aw, You quoted me! :)
Those huge old recorder thingy's were awful! I remember having to change them (or something) once a night back in the good ol' days when 911 was in the fire department. After 3-ish one dispatcher had to walk to the other room, alone, in the dark, to do the tapes leaving one dispatcher to man all three consoles alone. We also had to write calls on cards. Which was bad because my handwriting is not exactly legible. Aimee says one of the first things she remembers about me is that I had a bottle of white out and a can of Mt. Dew beside me. Am I really that old or has technology changed so much so quickly? Don't answer that!

Craven Lovelace said...

Very interesting post, John. Archiving seems to be a new problem in the digital age. I have never previously considered the problem in terms of emergency services, but I have mulled it many times in my field (television/film production), where digital technologies have made the retention of works in progress and preliminary drafts, versions and materials quite problematic. I fear future historians will have much less to work with thanks to these technological changes.