Are Blackberries best bet for Berkeley in emergencies?

The city of Berkeley’s executive team, which includes all councilmembers, department heads and senior managers, relies on Blackberries to communicate with each other and externally

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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  • Bruce

    I guess he’s tired of his Blackberry and wants an iPhone now. Saying he needs it to better serve the people of Berkeley in an emergency is a smart political move.

  • Anonymous

    A solar powered battery back-up system with an emergency generator would add reliability.

  • Bruce Love

    Worthington’s heart is in the right place, if you ask me, but I think he could formulate it differently and better.

    The problem is that he’s pointing at some IT features (keeping city records up, keeping blackberries or their replacement working) and muttering something about emergencies — saying, “let’s fix that IT”.

    That’s putting the cart before the horse.

    Rather, what kinds of conditions do we think emergencies might create?   What goals should the city have in terms of providing service under those conditions?   How can the city prepare to meet those goals (including testing its readiness)?   Then, finally, what IT requirements fall out of that?

    For example: do blackberries matter?   Maybe not if the internet is down or if power is out for a long time, etc.   Maybe the number of scenarios in which blackberries are critical is huge .. or maybe it is minuscule .. the real first question is what do we want government to be able to do under various forseeable conditions.   Answers are things like “receive calls for police help from all parts of town”  or “quickly develop reasonably accurate intelligence about where the worst damage and greatest number of injuries are, in order to prioritize responses”.  If an emergency persists, questions of maintaining continuity of governance come up.    Out of looking at those questions we might find we want redundant servers and blackberry replacements or we might find that we want to keep paper files and buy lots of walky-talkies, generators, and so forth.

  • Guest

    If Berkeley’s e-mail system was down due to a power outage, he still wouldn’t have been able to send mail with an iPhone.  If they’re looking for a hot failover site, they should be prepared to spend a couple million dollars for the hardware and infrastructure.

  • Completely Serious

    With the city manager finally retiring (at a pension more than his salary) I understand the City will be upgrading to some UNIX computers.

  • Bruce Love

    Is that wishful snark or real?  (I assume the former but wish the latter.)

  • Anonymous

    Briefly, as this issue is complex and multi-factorial, in the ’89 quake — the 7.1 magnitude that nearly took me out — if you receive a fast busy on your land line phone with AT&T due to the reality that their central offices or entire switching systems are fully overloaded, and you still desire an outbound line as the cell sites are all trashed ( no power ) just hold onto your phone and allow the fast busy to continue for a few minutes.  When there is room, the signal changes to a conventional dial tone and ‘then’ you can call outbound.  This will take about 3 minutes or less.  Just stay with it.  The cell sites and be redirected across time ( think days ) to or through other cities in say Sacramento if the CO’s here are trashed and inoperable. Just focus on patience and preparation.  Your simple AM/FM radio will tell you more than you will ever need to know oddly in such matters.  The more complex any system is, the more likely it is to fail and fail very hard.  Even backup power systems fail for a wide variety of reasons. Simplicity can be a very key word with all of this and our communications systems of all stripe are not set up that way I am sorry to say.  I am going to leave this to others to sort through as it’s become 25x even more complex since ’89.

  • Bertram

    Will they come with a fat bearded UNIX expert with a ponytail and suspenders or will they have to acquire him separately?

  • Bruce Love

    Google has mostly cornered the market on that model and forced them to take up Go-Go dancing.   You have to shop for the sporty newer models.  “Here’s a nickel, kid….”

  • Bertram

    Have you been to the Google HQ? They are almost all 20-somethings who are wearing sneakers. No bearded UNIX types in sight.

  • Is having constant access to the data in question worth the cost of any study or upgrade that might be needed?

    We all got along just fine for a long time before Blackberries and iWhatsises were ever invented. I find it hard to believe that cash-strapped Berkeley should dump more money down the hole just so that the City Council and a few managers can be spared the horror of being separated from their official e-mail and virtual documents for a few hours.

  • Bruce Love

    Google doesn’t hire lots and lots of  old unix guys other than folks like Ken Thompson (bearded, last I checked) and Rob Pike (almost always a non-bearded outlier, historically, yet…).   They work on projects like Go.  I’m not sure but I think they are both over 20.   Alternatively, they might have a time machine.  It’s hard to tell with those guys.   They do keep out of sight a lot, though.  I think they’re up to something. 

  • I’ve been a Unix sysadmin for 14 years, and I think that if the City uses Windows servers they should probably stick with Windows. Migrating any system from one OS to another is a huge undertaking, and is probably not worth the cost. I’ve seen it fail over and over.
    Side note, a signifigant portion of Unix was developed here in Berkeley (At UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, and others locally). Berkeley has an Operating System named after it, called Berkeley Software Distribution, and lives on in projects like FreeBSD & OpenBSD and Mac OS X. Windows also contains code derived from BSD.

  • In the event of a large earthquake, it’s doubtful that most of the Cell networks would work anyways, or would be highly unreliable and not good for much beyond spotty, asynchronous text messaging. If cell phones are required, then do not keep all of your eggs in one basket and try to use a diversity of vendors. Give AT&T to some people, Verizon to others, Sprint to others. There are only 3-4 cell phone networks in Berkeley (and in most of the country), so diversification will only buy you so much.

    In a real emergency, phone, radio, walky-talkies, shortwave radio and human-to-human communication will be far more reliable, and are much more time tested. The phone infrastructure is required to be more reliable. There are numerous shortwave radios in the area (including several at the emergency service buildings in Berkeley and the East Bay).

    I have spoken to several emergency agencies about this, including the Berkeley Office of Emergency Services.  This is basically what they say.

    But regardless, a real emergency can cause severe problems for even the best communication systems. Keep your expectations low. After a big earthquake, the City of Berkeley may not be able to communicate anything for a while.

  • Bruce Love

    Why migrate? Why not just “freeze and maintain”, doing new initiatives on the superior platform and moving old stuff only through gradual attrition?

  • Anonymous

    I visited Google Intergalactic Headquarters many years ago on a lava lamp research project.  

    Bearded – yes
    Ponytail – no
    Fat – no comment
    Suspenders – would a vest do?
    UNIX – no, but I once spoke in Octal