Friday, April 22, 2011

Air Medical Safety 'In Action'

Wednesday afternoon I took Leslie some lunch at work, and then took Gianna and her friend Jaime to the Robinson Mall. Afterward, I turned on the scanner and made my way toward Steubenville Pike and Route 30. My plan was to take Rt. 30 to Clinton, then head back home from there.

While in the area, I heard North Fayette VFD being dispatched to establish a landing zone at their station on Steubenville Pike. Having not monitored an accident or other incident occurring, I was intrigued by this development, and headed over, arriving just after the STAT MedEvac helicopter did.

Upon arriving, I overheard an officer of the Fire Dept. explain to others that the aircraft was landing there to transfer a patient from the nearby Kindred Hospital, a Long Term Acute Care facility. Northwest EMS was staged at the landing zone to take the crew to the hospital and bring them back to the aircraft with the patient.

While I was taking pictures, I noticed the crew paying what seemed to me an inordinate amount of attention to the sliding aircraft door. It appeared that when a crew member opened the door, it would not close or slide properly. Eventually, all 3 of the aircraft crew became involved in evaluating the problem with the door. It was obvious as to why; if the door could not be restored to normal operating condition, it was an issue that could potentially ground the aircraft.

After a few minutes, the medical crew left with Northwest EMS for the hospital. The pilot, who normally remains with the aircraft, got on his phone. It looked to me like that "Hello, AAA?" posture that people can be seen assuming while they're sitting inside their disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Instead, the call was likely to the STAT MedEvac communications center to get a mechanic involved.

About 30 minutes later, the Northwest ambulance that was initially at the LZ drove past the fire station, and I overheard on the scanner that the ambulance was on its way to UPMC Mercy, with the aircraft medical crew and patient aboard. Additional scanner traffic, and a conversation with the fire official at the scene, confirmed that the aircraft was indeed grounded by the malfunctioning door, and that a mechanic was on the way to address the issue.

Voice mail messages left for STAT MedEvac media relations staff were not returned.

This kind of occurrence may seem trivial, but it's fortunate that this did not occur at an emergency scene flight. Even if it had, despite the heightened emotions and sense of urgency common to those kinds of calls, the decision making would likely not have changed.

That's a good thing. This was absolutely the right thing to do, in any circumstance.

Over the past several years, in response to numerous accidents and incidents involving EMS helicopters, many air medical operators, with the support of trade organizations and the FAA, have moved to alter their operational practices, and even the culture within the organization, through the implementation of Safety Management Systems. These efforts involve a combination of regulatory and organizational changes designed to accomplish the following:

  • Define how the organization is set up to manage risk.
  • Identify workplace risk and implement suitable controls.
  • Implement effective communications across all levels of the organization.
  • Implement a process to identify and correct non-conformities.
  • Implement a continual improvement process.

STAT MedEvac touts their commitment to SMS and safety practices on their website. As one who has worked in and followed the industry over the years, the accomplishments of STAT MedEvac with regard to the above bullet points appears to be fairly impressive, as it should when you are operating 17 helicopters across the region.

As the ambulance drove by on the way to Mercy, without lights or sirens, I wondered about the utilization of air transport in this instance. What were the patient's needs? Rapid transport? Specialized care not otherwise available? These are questions that have and will continue to be asked, especially as the debate over health care costs continues to heat up. That's for another post.

In the meantime, as an educated and experienced observer I was impressed with the level of professionalism, organization, and decorum on the part of the Fire and EMS agencies involved in the response. It's indicative of a general improvement in these areas that I've noticed since moving back.

Have a pleasant, blessed, and safe Easter weekend.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Adventures in Trunked Radio -
Gary Harmon Edition

First things first - this week is National Public Safety Telelcommunicators Week. These professionals are tasked with receiving often fragmented information from hysterical, delusional and often clueless people and turning it into a cohesive informational road map with which to deploy and coordinate the activities of our nation's public safety responders - Police, Fire AND Emergency Medical Services.

They work long, convoluted hours, and with a few noteworthy exceptions are largely taken for granted or marginalized by those whom they serve. Returning to the Pittsburgh area has brought this point home for me rather well. Catching up with the system online, and monitoring local activity, has shown me that there are some areas of the region where everything about the system and its practitioners has changed for the better, and also some pockets of resistance where the dispatch profession is still - still - regarded as something anemically clerical in nature.

If you know a professional Telecommunicator, thank them for their service and commitment this week. Grand Junction's group of professionals will have new digs to ply their trade pretty soon - something largely regarded as a once-in-a career occurrence for most in the profession. Good for them.

A short blurb on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website caught my immediate attention this afternoon. Under the headline "GJ awarded money for radios", Sentinel reporter Gary Harmon managed, in four short paragraphs, to put forward at least two inaccuracies, several statements that were unclear, and one old, blatant falsehood that for me made a mockery of a significant event that impacts the future of communications in the rural areas of Mesa County.

The announcement that "Grand Junction" will receive nearly a million dollars to purchase new radios for fire agencies across the county (that is, outside of Grand Junction) was the first head-scratcher for me. What Mr. Harmon probably meant was the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center (GJRCC), operated by the City but serving all county public safety agencies, and which has been coordinating much of the efforts to fund the complete transition of the county's public safety agencies to the Colorado Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS).

The next whopper was particularly onerous, as it repeats false information reported by the Sentinel as far back as August 2009, which is the last time I wrote about this topic in detail.
Quoting the Sentinel story:
The 800 MHz radios should allow all public-safety agencies to communicate on one frequency with less interruption or loss of service, officials said.

(Note: I can find no press release on the City's website that corresponds with the story quoting these un-named "officials".)

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated all agencies switch to that bandwidth by 2012 and the grant will take care of all the fire-safety agencies in Mesa County as part of an $8.9 million project for public safety across the county.

There is no "mandate" by the FCC or anyone else that public safety agencies abandon their existing radio spectrum for frequencies in the 800 Mhz band. What the FCC did do was to require that all public safety radio users in what is known as the VHF and UHF radio spectrum re-configure both their operating licenses and equipment so that they operate with less space between channels. This known as Narrowbanding, and the deadline for agencies across the country to complete the process is indeed January 1, 2013.

The administration of GJRCC may have decided not to utilize their existing VHF spectrum after the 1/1/13 deadline. If true, this is unfortunate for those very rural fire departments that are benefiting from this latest grant. Many of these departments have their own radio licenses and frequencies that they use for tactical purposes. These agencies may choose to go through with the narrowbanding process for their own frequencies. Their reasons can be summed up in the final misleading statement reported by the Sentinel. To be fair, they are quoting Sen. Mark Udall, although there is no press release on the Senator's website regarding this topic:
“The last thing we want to see is Colorado firefighters losing their calls in an emergency or not being able to communicate with other emergency workers,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. said. “The wildfire season this year has already shaped up to be an aggressive one, making it all the more important that our public-safety officers have the proper equipment to safely do their jobs.”
In most wildland fire scenarios on or near public lands, one of the most important communications links is between local fire responders and the vast, specialized resources of the federal interagency fire system. Responders in this system utilize frequencies and radios in the VHF spectrum that have already been narrowbanded for several years.

There are numerous frequencies, such as common "work" channels, air operations channels, and air-to ground coordination channels, that are standard across the system nationwide. This dovetails with efforts to create a national framework of interoperability channels in several frequency bands for use by any agency that may find itself situated at a major incident - anywhere.

In short, the very radios that Mesa County's rural fire departments are slated to "replace" with these new radios are the very ones they will likely be depending upon to communicate with federal wildland fire resources during a major incident. To be sure, connections will be established so that a VHF and 800 Mhz network can be connected in some way to assist with interoperability efforts on a wide-area basis, but any local engine crew that is supporting a team of federal hotshots in the middle of nowhere is going to need their VHF radio.

Contrary to the ministrations of Gary Harmon and whoever was feeding him this crap, reports of the demise of radio spectrum other than 800 Mhz for public safety have been highly exaggerated. In fact, a significant number of public safety agencies in Colorado that have transitioned to the State DTRS have re-licensed their old VHF or UHF frequencies for narrowband use. I wonder why...

Thanks to all the Dispatchers out there.

Have a good week ahead.


Friday, April 08, 2011

My Own Private Fallingwater

This is the front entry to my house in Grand Junction, Colorado. The cantilevered overhang has been deteriorating due to what appears to be moisture penetration. My friend Jeff is a handyman of some repute, so I asked him to take a look to see what happened and what needs to be done to fix it.

Jeff found that water had penetrated the exterior soffit of the overhang, but most of the supporting structure was intact. This did not prevent the overhang from deflecting downward about 2 inches - hence the hydraulic jacks and temporary support beams.

Over the last few weeks Jeff has been gradually raising the jacks to level the overhang, and will use long lag bolts to secure it back to its intended position. He's already replaced the rotted soffit. He's done some great work so far.

I was immediately reminded of the difficulties that plagued Fallingwater a little over 10 years ago. This is not entirely without coincidence, as the houses and their respective cantilevers were both constructed in 1936. As with many flat-roofed Wright buildings, leaks were always a problem - a consequence of Wright's designs outstripping the capabilities of the sealant technologies of the day.

Fallingwater had the additional issue of it's builders not compensating for the effect of time on the large, cantilevered terraces. Instead of constructing the wooden framework for the reinforced concrete with a slight upward angle to account for deflection in future years, the forms were built level. When they were struck, the new terraces were doomed to sag at an increasing rate, until the amount of deflection threatened their structural integrity. An expensive tensioning technique was used to gradually pull the terraces back up into the large rock that serves as an anchor for the entire house.

Other restoration work and upgrades were performed on the house from 2001 to 2003, including the re-pointing of some of the exterior walls and replacement of original windows with ultraviolet-resistant glass, in order to help preserve the woodwork and original, Wright-designed furnishings inside.

The problems with my overhang don't appear to be rooted in the original construction, but ironically to an improvement effort. Roughly 10 years ago I had the gutters replaced around the entire house. According to Jeff, there appears to have been metal flashing across the top of the overhang that would deflect water into the gutters on either side. This flashing was inexplicably removed, subjecting the bare wood underneath to the elements. Over time, water seepage from this removal appears to be the cause for the damage that we're mitigating now.

So while I'm getting settled back in the Pittsburgh area, some unwelcome settling back in Colorado is being handled in a manner not that different from that which helped to save one of America's most famous and revered houses and architectural landmarks.

As it happens, both my house and Fallingwater will turn 75 this year. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which maintains and operates Fallingwater as part of a large nature preserve entrusted to them by the Kaufmann family, is planning several different events to commemorate this anniversary. I hope to be able to make it out to the house sometime this spring or summer. One goal I have when I get my life and schedule better regulated is to volunteer there. I've always wanted to be a guide or docent, and now I may have my chance.

Have a great day.

Photo Credit: (Fallingwater)

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The King's Speech

Last weekend, Leslie and I had some excellent Chinese food from the House of Lee in Emsworth. They've been there since I was in high school, and even after a considerable absence from the area I still have not had a bad experience with the food there.

Afterward, we decided to take in the theatrical re-release of this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, The King's Speech. The re-release included some editing of some profanities that resulted in the film getting an "R" rating. This new version is rated PG-13, which illustrates to me the hypocrisy of the provincial thinking that endangers the "traditional" entertainment industry. To quote Roger Ebert about the rating; "It is utterly inexplicable. This is an excellent film for teenagers."

Apparently, the studio and production company saw it that way as well. Along with the PG-13 theatrical version, they released an activity guide for students to go along with the film. Perhaps there's a method to their madness; if they take out some of the offensive language, perhaps the film will be made available in schools, and kids will learn from it. I still don't like the censorship aspects of this.

All the "F" words will be intact when the film comes to DVD, and that happens in less than two weeks. So what have they accomplished? Well, truth be told, they got $20 out of me to see it in the multiplex, which is most likely what they wanted to begin with.

It's easy for me to see why the film won the Oscar - it's classic movie-making at its best. Great writing accompanied by great acting, along with some innovative touches. There's one scene that follows Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter down a hallway and then down a winding staircase - all with what seems to be one Steadicam in a single shot. It reminded me a little of the grand opening scene of Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil, if not on the scale of that classic.

One other reason I think the film won is because it tells an uplifting story about an admirable set of characters who surmount daunting personal challenges in the face of much larger concerns. It resonated with the public, especially those with speech difficulties. I saw several other films nominated for Best Picture, among them 127 Hours, The Social Network, and Inception. While these are all outstanding films in many of the same ways, they are more modern in both their subject matter and their approach, perhaps so much so that those who vote for the Oscars, which include a number of traditionalists, saw the appeal, accessibility, and craftsmanship of this British effort and pronounced it worthy of their appreciation.

I don't think that the Academy took Inception as seriously as they should have - I think it seemed more of a novelty to them, which is why it won all of the major awards for technical achievements, just like The Matrix did. Enough about that.

Perhaps the additional appeal of The King's Speech comes from the manner in which it portrays historical events in a more personal context, and the way that convention is seemingly set aside for what works. You'll see what I mean if/when you see the film. Of particular interest to me was the portrayal of King Edward VIII as a disinterested party boy of sorts. Combined with his obsession over the American divorcee' Wallis Simpson - for whom he would seriously defy convention and give up his throne to marry - it seems to be the message of the film that not only was George VI a more capable, if reluctant leader, but that his older brother would have been a disaster in wartime.

Given her ability to captivate such a man, one wonders if Wallis Simpson can be considered the savior of Britain, if not the free world, for doing so.

The film is an excellent look at the power of thinking outside the box and leveraging technology for the betterment of humankind, as well as the dangers of looking at people only as credentials, and not for their inherent worth as individuals. Think about that when you watch it, which I hope you'll do.

Have a great day.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Things Found While Looking For Other Things 2

"Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness."

In the midst of my travels across country almost a month ago, this phrase came to mind after a long day and night of driving and really not making the kind of progress that I wanted. I should have gotten a good night's sleep after a day of packing and loading and preparing. Instead, I struck out at about 10:00 PM and found myself making frequent rest stops, winding up in Kansas City at 8:00 the following evening, well behind schedule and plainly exhausted.

Leslie was justifiably concerned and upset on the phone. I thought of the above sentence and told her about it. I couldn't remember where it came from, but as I settled in for about 6 hours of sleep at a Motel 6 east of KC I knew I would be looking it up the next morning.

At about 4:00 AM I got my answer. After waking up, I remembered that this line is part of the Desiderata, which is a favorite poem that I haven't mentioned much here. Googling the phrase confirmed this, and also provided a link to information on the poem's author, Max Ehrmann. Included in the Wikipedia entry for the poem is the following:

On August 26, 2010, a bronze statue of Max Ehrmann sitting on a park bench was unveiled in Terre Haute, Indiana, his hometown, with the sculpture done by Bill Wolfe. On a nearby walkway, some lines of the poem are also available to be read by passersby.

Seeing that my planned journey on Interstate 70 would take me right past Terre Haute, I deviated slightly and entered the city on old U.S. 40 in the late morning hours, winding up at the intersection of 7th and Walnut, which is of some note itself to highway buffs as the former intersection of U.S. 40 and U.S. 41.

It is here, situated in the background of this photo, that the small plaza and the bronze likeness of Max Ehrmann has been placed.

Mr. Ehrmann's likeness is sitting on a park bench with pen and pad in hand, attired in clothing appropriate to the turn of the 20th century. I noticed at least one group of people come by and pose for pictures on the bench with the sculpture.

Born in 1872, Mr. Ehrmann studied English, Law and Philosophy at DePauw and Harvard, returning to Terre Haute in 1898 for a brief law career before devoting his time fully to writing. He died in 1945 at the age of 72. Much like Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, Mr. Ehrmann was born in the Midwest just after the Civil War and lived through the enlightened period of the Industrial Revolution, the dawn of broadcast media, two World Wars, and the Great Depression.

Mr. Ehrmann's chronicles of that age tended toward the spiritual, but he did not achieve widespread notoriety until the Desiderata, which was 'discovered' about 20 years after Ehrmann's death. The poem is featured prominently in the small plaza, with snippets embedded amongst the brickwork.

The short deviation from my planned route of travel proved most worthwhile - I would have liked to travel more on U.S. 40 before it re-joined I-70 further into Indiana, but elected to try to make up some time. I did conclude my journey with an easy 60-mile drive through the hills of eastern Ohio, on U.S. 22 between Cambridge and Steubenville before it crossed the Ohio into West Virginia, turned into four lanes, and led me to a newer expressway spur past the Pittsburgh airport. I arrived at Leslie's work just as she was getting done for the day, and we followed each other home.

If you are not familiar with the Desiderata, by all means Google it and look at its myriad online representations, including the way I first heard it, in a spoken word recording by Les Crane when I was 11 years old. I found something else written by Max Ehrmann that seems appropriate to starting off a new life in familiar surroundings - hopefully you will get something out of it as well:

A Prayer by Max Ehrmann

Let me do my work each day; and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me, may I not forget the strength that comforted me in the desolation of other times.

May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking over the silent hills of my childhood, or dreaming on the margin of a quiet river, when a light glowed within me, and I promised my early God to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years. Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions of unguarded moments.

May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit. Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be such as shall keep me friendly with myself.

Lift up my eyes from the earth, and let me not forget the uses of the stars. Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself. Let me not follow the clamor of the world, but walk calmly in my path.

Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am; and keep ever burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope.

And though age and infirmity overtake me, and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for life, and for time's olden memories that are good and sweet; and may the evening's twilight find me gentle still.

Have a great week ahead.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Life Springs Forward

And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Sensitive Plant"

Happy April!

Our wedding was hectic in the planning and execution (as I guess most weddings are) all the way up to the ceremony. That, and the reception, went off without a hitch. Two days of rain showers followed by two inches of snow on Thursday evening gave way to sunshine on Saturday, and a tenuous glimpse of what is sure to be warmer days ahead.

The high spirits and well-wishes of those in attendance, combined with the happiness that was almost palpable between Leslie and I, made the wedding and events afterward almost one big, frenetic, happy blur. I missed having some people there to celebrate with me, most notably my son, but with life translating itself back toward a more normal pace I think it won't be long before we can share some good times together again.

We left the following day for a short week in the Florida Keys, and are getting back into something that seems more difficult for me, regardless of my familiarity with Leslie's house - acclimating into a routine. I have never been a dog owner in adult life, and walking Lilah has been a change in responsibility for me that I find a challenging, yet welcome one.

I am trying to get some other tasks accomplished associated with moving, and hope to get these done before starting work at one of the area Home Depot stores next week. They're telling me I'll get close to 40 hours a week during their busy part of the year, which is rapidly approaching save for the cold temperatures that seem to represent one last great act of defiance on the part of winter.

I'm starting this next chapter of my life with little expectations other than to reinforce the already strong bond I have with my wife, try to make a decent living, and get back to doing what I know best. Perhaps after all that is done I will have more time to get involved in things that I always wanted to do when I lived here before, but never had time. I intend to take things slow to start. Writing helps keep these things clearer in my head.

Leslie and I would like to send some well-deserved recognition toward some Pittsburgh-area businesses that serve what has to be termed the wedding and special event "industry". These local small businesses did an excellent job in providing outstanding customer service at a reasonable price. Those in the Pittsburgh area planning a wedding or other special event should give the following your consideration:

A Party Place Rentals, Ross Township
Carol's Cakes, Center Township
Janice's Catering, Ambridge
McMillen Photography, Waynesburg
Ziggy's Tuxedos, Suits, and DJ Service, Center Township

Enjoy the April Fool. I think that we will enjoy one of those Pittsburgh traditions that I missed this time of year in Colorado - the Lenten Fish Fry.

Have a great weekend.