On Tuesday, October 11th, at about 4:00 pm, a power outage in Berkeley shut down the downtown BART station and disabled the city’s computer system, which meant services and documents for elected officials, city agency staff, and city residents were inaccessible for several hours.
On the same day, owners of BlackBerries across the country — which includes all senior City of Berkeley personnel — were experiencing outages on their handheld devices after a system hardware glitch caused a backlog of data to build up in the European servers of Research In Motion, the makers of the BlackBerry.
Both incidents highlight Berkeley’s dependence on potentially unreliable technologies. They also underscore how vulnerable our city’s government might be in a state of emergency. In the case of a natural disaster, emergency information could be inaccessible for more than a few hours, and Berkeley residents might not be able to contact the city officials to seek public safety assistance.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington is asking Berkeley’s government to explore whether the city could be using superior technology, including effective back-up systems, and has drafted a consent item for tonight’s City Council meeting to that effect.
“Hospital administrators allegedly have the best back-up systems in the state, and the city of Berkeley should look at whether we can have the same,” he says. “We know we’re going to have a quake or fire some day and it’s essential that everyone stays in the loop.”
The Berkeley Emergency Notification System (BENS) currently allows the city to call residents at home to give them critical public safety information. It is based on landline phones, however, so residents need to register their cell phone numbers for them to be included. The city’s 2004 Disaster Mitigation Plan does not refer to communications. [Update, 1:51 pm: According to Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the city of Berkeley’s spokesperson, Berkeley’s Emergency Response Plan, which is not currently available to view online, covers communications.]
Worthington says he is not faulting the city’s I.T. department, but rather reminding them of the need to continually reassess the systems in play, given the fast pace of change in the technology field.
Worthington is particularly concerned about the long-term viability of using BlackBerries. “I wonder if BlackBerries are the technology of the near future,” he says. “Things change so fast.”
He says he remembers when he was first given a pager as a government employee. “It was a super technological advance and so beautiful,” he says. “Now it’s practically medieval.”
Although the doesn’t see BlackBerries as antiquated yet, Worthington does not feel reassured when he reads about the woes of the product’s parent company, RIM. RIM’s stock has plunged more than 67% this year with the three-day global service outage being a major contributing factor. According to a recent report by CNN Money, its stock is now trading around book value, which, in theory, is what a company is worth if it were to be liquidated.
“Are BlackBerries the wave of the future?” asks Worthington.
Worthington doesn’t pretend to know what the solution might be. He says he is there to ask the questions, not select the technology. He recalls when he brought to the council the idea that its meetings should be broadcast to the public. “I didn’t know how or if it could be done, but people who did know told me there were several ways we could do it, and now council meetings are live-streamed and can be watched on home computers or TV,” he says.
Tonight’s city council meeting is at 7:00 pm in the city chambers at Old City Hall. It is preceded by a 5 pm special work session on cell phone guidelines and a financial update on the city’s solid waste operation. On Wednesday, at 5:30 pm, the council meets again to discuss city redistricting. That meeting will be held at the North Berkeley Senior Center at 2011 Hearst Avenue.
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