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Friday, March 06, 2009

Is Technology Failing Us? The Sinking of the Patriot!

If the purpose of technology is to make our lives simpler and easier and as a direct consequence spur society to a better state of being, then I have to question the some of these innovations and the government that spawned the legislation to support them. Not only are our lives more complicated and difficult, we have a stagnating society, and some would even say devolving.

Computers have gotten faster, smaller and much more powerful. As a result, Web pages are so crowded and busy with video and other ads they crash all but the most robust browsers. Every other month new software has to be downloaded in order to keep up with the changes at Yahoo, Google, CNN, etc. And with each new software update comes a spate of anti-spy ware, anti-malicious ware, anti-spam ware and anti-virus ware. Of course, what it means to you is that your two year old computer is fast becoming a useless digital dinosaur and soon it will be time to head to Staples or Best Buy and plunk down another $1,500 for a faster, more capable machine.

But that's only half the rub.

When the 406 mHz EPIRBs came out to replace the VHF Channel 16 and 121 mHz EPIRBs, I was one of the few who rang a bell of caution. My complaint was that VHF FM and 121 mHz AM distress signals were 100% immediate, and 406 mHz signals were not. With the two former, the call went out, and if a boat (monitoring VHF Channel 16) or a plane (monitoring the emergency 121 mHz aircraft frequency) was in the area, it was going to pick up the MAYDAY instantly. With 406 mHz EPIRBs, the signal goes to the satellite, then to the ground station, then to the Coast Guard, where it is processed, identified, verified, and finally, acted on. Don't get me wrong, the older EPIRBs had their problems: crank MAYDAYs, no locating beacon, false positives, interference, and the biggest one – nobody in range to hear the call. But. . . .

Eliminating the older EPIRBs forced a level of technology on inshore mariners that in effect reduced their window of opportunity. By how much? Who can really say? All we can say for certain is that two 406 mHz EPIRB-equipped boats, not also equipped with VPIRBs and DSC VHFs, even if they’re only a few miles away, might have to wait to hear a PAN-PAN from the Coast Guard before responding to each other. This wait can be as much as an hour, and maybe even longer.

Enter the VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) and AIS (Automated Identification System), two further advances in marine technology that have in effect made life more complicated and more difficult, the first for commercial fishermen, the second for all mariners.

A case in point:

According to a report in the Boston Herald on January 9th of this year, the Coast Guard took 2-plus hours to respond to an emergency on board the Patriot, a 54' ground-fish dragger that was in serious trouble about 18 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. Apparently, a remote fire alarm went to the home of the boat’s owner/operator. The owner's wife notified the local Fire Department and/or the Coast Guard of the alarm, but the S&R response got hung-up in the pipe.

To date the bodies of the two crewmen have been found and the sunken vessel located and photographed underwater by an R.O.V. There is still no clue as to what caused the tragedy, or if the Coast Guard was too slow in responding or if it could have helped at all. An investigation is ongoing. However, it has been suggested that the delay was due to an attempt by the Coast Guard to verify the nature of the emergency using VMS and AIS data.

If this is what took place the morning the Patriot sank, it illustrates what can happen when technology and government regulation work in concert to alter the course of normal human interaction. When somebody calls for help, the first response from our government agencies shouldn't be: "Let's check the computers."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is just some of the many problems with this approach to fishing boat monitoring. See: