FireTrucks, the Internet and Life and Death

So I’m sitting in traffic in Manhattan. Not moving.  In the distance I can hear a firetruck siren and its getting closer. As those around us start to realize that we were in its path, I could see the frustration and even sense of fear in the driver’s face as he physically turned in all directions looking for an opening. I’m sure the same scene was played out in every car around us.  Fortunately we got out of the way, and the firetruck, was able to pass, although certainly not without a lot of stop and starts and incremental risk to those waiting on its arrival.

So what does this have to do with the internet ?

As our dependence on the net continues to increase, our habits of how we deal with emergencies and critical situations will change as well.  Will the habits of our kids push them to think to text a message to 911 rather than try to make a call ?  In a widespread emergency, a Text may have a better chance of getting through than a landline or cell phone call.  But in our net neutrality universe, how can we differentiate between a call for help in a life or death situation  vs some kid texting about what happened in class today ?

As medical care applications that use the net as transport to and from hospitals expand,  how can we make sure that the transport of an XRay, a surgical video, or a video conference that could save a life is given priority over some bittorrent porn download ?

The internet has become a utility.  We have come to depend on it with out really taking into account the situations where that dependence can be the difference between life and death.  While the discussion for the National Broadband Policy is occuring in the fight for stimulus money, its time we take the steps to make sure that we define how to identify packets of bits that can save a life

37 thoughts on “FireTrucks, the Internet and Life and Death

  1. Interesting idea, but to many technical barriers.

    How can you determine which packets to prioritize?

    You could do source and destination prioritization, but who determines who gets on the priority list? Surely you can see the potential for massive abuse.

    You could do packet content inspection but you would need to collect to many packets to get enough meaningful data (one packet probably isn’t going to be enough to determine if something should be prioritized or not), and if your heuristics aren’t perfect then you will have way to many false positives and false negatives (think about the current spam filters in place, they suck, what makes you think a packet prioritizer could be any better than a spam filter)

    Also with packet inspection how do you deal with encrypted packets? You can’t inspect their content so how do you determine if they should be prioritized? You can’t just not encrypt all priority data, unless you want your medical records flying around the internet in plain text, I know I don’t. Do you come up with a form of PKI that allows for a so called “master key” that can be used by “trusted” entities to decrypt the data? Not going to happen.

    Of course you could set certain fields in headers that are not encrypted, but thats to easy to work around by people who would abuse the system. It works for corporations and internal networks, but not the internet as a whole.

    Maybe if the internet and its technologies had been built from the start with these concerns in mind, we could have a system where this idea could work, but it wasn’t. The internet wasn’t designed for this type of use, the fact that it was robust enough to facilitate it at all is nothing short of a miracle.

    As an aside I think there is a debate to be had as to whether or not certain groups have the right to move their mission critical services to the internet and then demand to the rest of the world that they be given priority. If the system isn’t going to work for you, don’t use it. But I will leave that discussion for another time.

    Comment by viscious -

  2. Pingback: Emergency Mode Internet Communications : EMS and Fire Software - Online Web Scheduling, Fleet and Personnel Management, Reporting System

  3. Love the blog, Cubes. Got to it via The B.S. Report, if you’re keeping score.

    Anyway, I’d like you to think about, as I’m reading through your old posts to see where you’ve already thought about it, your own assertion, “The internet has become a utility”. I completely agree with you. Well, what type of utility? How have we treated utilities in the past? What’s been successful?

    Toll roads, telegraph lines, the interstate highway system, telephone lines, cable lines, radio spectrum…regulation, deregulation, barriers to entry, predatory pricing, etc. I took classes in college on this stuff, but I don’t remember much of it.

    I just want to ask one question. Can we please get some massive public investment in fiber lines up in this piece? I actually don’t need roads, the FDA or the rule of law as much as I need as a marginal 1mbps more of download speed. Seriously, I’d actually prefer that the streets of Chicago turn into the Wild West if it gave me an additional 500kbps of upload speed. I am the future, Cubes. People need to get used to it.

    Comment by Eric Bishp -

  4. Mark – you’re talking about treating the internet as we treat radio spectrum.

    I think that’s a fairly primitive point of view.

    Comment by Jeff S -

  5. In 2012 the world’s going to end. End of story guys. That’s it. Gone. No more world. There won’t be any need for 911 anymore, because there won;t be anyone alive to answer or ring it. Except those of us who built pyramid shelters. “Global pyramids that exist across ancient cultures that NEVER had any contact with each other are a safety device built in preparation for the coming end-times.”** So yeah, any long term aim that doesn’t consist of building a pyramid aiming to come into fruition past 2012 is not really going to be that helpful.

    ** Prof. Donald Winkleman, University of Boston professor of performing arts and armageddonology.

    Comment by afraid -

  6. Of course, Spike, you’re more concerned with how you can get something for nothing (nothing of yours at least) than how we can take advantage of the very real possibility of a greater good. I hate that your post was the first I saw.

    I’m not so sure Mark Cuban’s weblog is a great place for your political stage.

    That being said, this is a very interesting take on capabilities of broadband, and being able to prioritize it, however I’d hate to think how people might take advantage of such technology, manipulating it to give themselves highest priority any and all of the time — actually worsening the very thing we’d be attempting to better.

    Comment by KD -

  7. As a former firefighter, I’ll just quickly mention the fact that more firefighters die from accidents en route than in actual emergency incidents.

    There’s a couple of problems using technology to upgrade emergency calls. Bits can be lost. True, phone calls can be difficult to make, but once a hardline connection is made, it’s not often lost. Unless it’s wireless. I’ll agree with a post above that one reason for departments sticking with pagers is cell phone and wireless have terrible reception in fire houses and police headquarters. Those structures are a lot of brick and mortar designed to withstand just about anything. And most emergency calls centers are in the basements of those structures, so they can be up and running during natural disasters. But, I think looking for technology to help ease the burden off 911 would be good to consider (even if giving preferential treatment to younger citizens).

    Although, this makes one think: since most texters are in a younger demographic (and that younger demographic would most likely abuse the system more often than middle-aged or senior citizens?), would we just be setting up a problematic emergency alternative that would detract a call center’s attention away from the severe hardline calls?

    Another thing to consider, is the unlikelihood that someone would be able to text if they’re in the middle of an emergency. When the adrenaline hits, most people can’t even collect their thoughts, much less type on a small QWERTY keyboard. If you’ve heard a 911 call, you know that people can barely provide an address or description of the incident they’re so frantic.

    And most people don’t text full words! I’d like to see the call center interpret: “help dog 8 my i”

    Comment by Elliot Thresher -

  8. The communications game is changing fast. Wait until keyboards of all types disappear. Maybe we will simply point our cell phone camera at an incident and the notification for help will be sent, and the importance of a response to the message prioritized based on the number of people who do so based on population density.

    Typing and talking may become secondary to live streaming images for much of our messaging.

    Comment by Pauly Dergona -

  9. It is fascinating the impact the net has and promises to have in ourlives. I would like to know of the backup plan. I do not want to be in a situation of “what now”. You have such a wonderfull and insightfull readers. Great post. 🙂

    Comment by whateverebay -

  10. I think technology has evolved to improve certain things in our lives. Communicating is definitely one of them. I get 600 minutes to use every month at any time. However, every month I barely use 200 of them. I send and receive almost 8,000 text messages every month b/c I find it 10x easier to communicate with people in such a manner. Maybe it is my demographic, 25/m, or maybe it is just my willingness to use new technologies.

    I think the best solution is whatever gets the job done in the quickest amount of time that does not sacrifice the integrity of the process involved.

    NOtifying 911 might be tough b/c we are dealing with life or death situations many times, and synchronous communication lines are necessary to get the job done.

    Comment by Doctor S -

  11. Lots of ways to respond to this–Technology definitely appeals to younger users more than their elders so emergency text messages to 911 would come from that segment of the population. Plenty of parents have learned to text because they know that their kids don’t respond to phone or e-mail messages. So the younger, technically savvy might have better access to emergency dispatchers than older, poorer Americans–just like the NYC resident who lives in a less congested neighborhood might have better access for fire trucks.

    Comment by deb -

  12. Hi Mark,

    You make a good point, but I’ll try to describe why over time the free market will most likely step in to cover this issue and if not the FCC will. This is really not a problem with net neutrality as SMS is not really an internet data communication, it’s more of a voice application as it travels over the SS7 networks. Most, if not all, telco’s build their IP networks using some level of QOS (quality of service). The only time this is needed is when there is no physical separation between their voice/SMS network and their data network. For such telco’s this is a requirement, as without the QOS their voice packets would start dropping or lagging as the porn starts eating up their internal bandwidth. So the QOS stamps the packets as high priority (there are different levels), so that the routers know which packets are more urgent.

    Text messaging (SMS) is currently handled over the SS7 network between telecom providers, and because of this most SS7 connections are still over the PSTN (public switched telephone network) which means they are still fairly reliable. As networks move entirely IP, chances are the physical links between networks will still remain separate in terms of voice and data (for quality reasons). As you can see, separation of voice and data and QOS is very important in telecom networks. Once text messaging starts to be used in emergency situations, the providers will realize this, they can then give the devices the option of setting a level of QOS on specific text messages. They also have every incentive to do this because they will need to charge more money from the end user on higher priority messages to prevent everyone from sending “emergency” messages normally (which they will be able to figure the right price). If by chance the providers don’t want to capitalize on this added service, and the emergency dispatch centers are reporting a high receipt of text messages, you can bet your ass the FCC will step in with more regulation and mandate that all SMS providers have the option of “emergency” level text messages.

    Comment by Brandon W Yuille -

  13. Pingback: Is this bit of data an X-Ray, or what? - Chris Pultz

  14. With all the advances in wireless internet, I envision a car ride that incorporates instant messaging or texting with all cars on the same road, in your buddy list (family, friends), or with emergency vehicles. Of course, texting means verbally dictating. I imagine that we will one day be able to select the license plate of the car ahead of us from a screen and send them a message (if they accept of course). This would allow companies can send out simultaneous messages to every vehicle in their fleet, and emergency vehicles to send messages to Mark Cuban informing him they are going be barreling down his backside well before he hears the sirens. I also understand the problems with this. Telling the guy in the red Pontiac to find a ditch and get in, is also an option and a problem, among others…Thoughts?

    Comment by Ian Goodwin -

  15. Don’t need to dump net neutrality. The digital broadcast technology allots dedicated spectrums for emergency usages.

    Comment by freeway2000 -

  16. I wonder if the firetruck could somehow communicate with a networked traffic light system, so that green lights would facilitate better traffic flow in its path. A minute or two may be vital to a life/death emergency situation

    Comment by John Cottone -

  17. I have a strong interest in tele-medicine and am grateful to Mark for beating the drum on this issue. There is zero opportunity for real time tele-medicine, such as videoconferencing with a doctor, unless it is reliable. Quite simply, I would never make an older client adapt to a new technology unless it works.

    Also, to fine tune the pitch: the transmission of XRays and other ‘store-and-forward’ type technologies work pretty ok right now. I think it’s the real time stuff that needs this change the most.

    Comment by Henry McGovern -

  18. When you asked, ‘what does this have to do with the Internet’ I immediately thought you were going to suggest having a system that sends text messages ahead of time to people along an Emergency Vehicle’s potential path, but alas it was a metaphor.

    Comment by Dan -

  19. I saw the same thing happen the other day in Toronto, Mark. It’s amazing how sirens from a firetruck or an ambulance can make people go frantic, and choose irrational actions.

    I was thinking yesterday about how if Twitter was a mainstream utility in 2004 when the Thailand disaster happened, if warning signal tweets could have saved thousands of lives. I would say yes.

    I believe that as we get more connected via the internet, that we will also (in time) become smarter, and more intelligent in the way we make decisions based on the wisdom of the crowds concept.

    Comment by Jeremy Campbell -

  20. the first good argument against net neutrality that i’ve heard. good post…

    Comment by Jonathan Payne -

  21. It would seem that another technology had gone through growing pains such as this when the telephone system was introduced. I’m not sure if “packet” priority is necessarily the answer, possibly the assignment of an individual IP address as a sort of Internet Phone Number. It would be an improvement to be assigned a number that translated to you no matter where you went in the world. Sit down at a terminal, type in your IP, and use any cpu anywhere… But then that would introduce a whole new kind of badguy stealing IP’s… right now no easy answers.

    Comment by Danno -

  22. sounds like somebody is worried about the power that internet based companies/content providers could yield. net neutrality? i just think the “stone age” content companies want to limit the power that new emeging industries can have.
    the whole net neutrality thing is just a cloak while you stifle what is happening now. with information/content easier to have in our home there is no need to rely on that tv where you must watch your program at a certain time or you miss out.

    internet & current content providers should work together instead of playing “who’s the better man”. if we all contributed and focused on something that would benefit everybody imagine how great it could be.

    Comment by brettjohn -

  23. These things largely exist, but may not be fully implemented. DoD phone systems have standards that allow prioritization of calls, including being able to ‘preempt’ or kick someone off a current phone call in urgent circumstances. Many of these systems are available for enterprise/corporation use, but don’t have the same application for a mass consumer market. The phone system largely has already taken care of high priority calls via 911, and text messaging could probably fairly easily be done as well. That’s if we’re talking SMS/Phone calls.

    For examples like sending X-ray, much of this is already in place as well. The technical name for it is Quality of Service (QoS), and it something that is negotiated with the provider if the enterprise/corporation (hospital) has a leased line. IP packets already have a field for priority called the Type of Service field (ToS). This practice is already very heavily used in the enterprise, small business, and service provider space.

    One of the reasons this is not employed to normal broadband users is that it is impractical to police the use of high priority packets. If you call 911 and hang up, the police come to your door. If you send send an ‘accidental’ high priority IP packet, it is impractical to police it.

    Comment by network -

  24. Endpoint differentiation might be more acceptable than actual packet discrimination. High priority, securitized information may end up directed through a completely different backbone, only needing an initial or end address to define the change in priority. This keeps snooping eyes from confidential information and limits the amount of scamming that will ultimately take place. Since it is unlikely that the future will truly support unlimited bandwidth, it makes sense to be worrying about the mutual issues of security and prioritization now. Interesting analogy.

    Comment by Fred H Schlegel -

  25. 911 Next Generation is well on its way. I do IT for a large 911 center. We are preparing to install a NextGen system that will allow us to receive text, photos and video via mobile phones. A few years ago we went to Phase II 911 service that allows us to locate cell phone callers. However there is a huge problem with cell phone locations vs. land lines. Land lines transmit addresses (Ani/Ali) with its voice. Mobile phones don’t but use two other methods. GPS or cell tower triangulation.

    The FCC didn’t require it to be very accurate. I am sure there were no lobbyist involved in that. Cell phone companies only have to be 95% accurate within 150 meters with GPS and 300 meters if using triangulation. See my illustration . While this might not seem large in heavily populated areas its huge.

    As more people ditch the land line and go mobile the ability for 911 find you in an emergency becomes slower and less accurate. 911 operators must call the cell phone company and fax over a request which can take away valuable time. We can get you billing address but if you are not at home and alone we might not find you.
    Mobile phones as well as VOIP don’t have the same ANI/ALI regulations. This means that companies who provide the services don’t have to keep or monitor your address again slowing responses.

    These are some of the dangers that the public may not be aware of.

    As far as net neutrality… A problem we face is dispatch is that Police and Fire departments are heavily reliant upon paging services. More of the departments have gone to mobile devices (mobile phones).In the past most communication companies gave 911/Dispatch network priority. Lately however there are several mobile providers who do not or cannot give priority to 911/Dispatch. One of them is a very large nationwide company. This slows down paging to Police and Fire responses.

    Comment by ERan -

  26. Hi Mark,

    Great analogy here! I don’t think any of the previous commentors here quite understood what you meant. The ideology of net neutrality, when put into practice in a congested information superhighway, means that porn downloads get as much priority as vital information that can save lives.

    It is a pity that so many democrat politicians and pundits (including the arrogant, narcissistic columnists at PC Magazine) are too blind to appreciate this point.

    Comment by aml -

  27. is there really that much of a need to prioritize like that?

    Comment by savednoteguy -

  28. Cubes,

    Heard you were stuck in traffic in Manhatten. Dude, c’mon Just because I’m filing bancruptcy again doesn’t mean I can’t lend out the chopper. Next time call.

    Comment by The Donald -

  29. “Within five years, the solar ‘killshot’ will occur, with the sun emitting some very large solar flares. The first series of flares will take down all electrical infrastructure.”**

    Then, we all must invest in electromagnetic shielded devices, i.e., get that 1950’s vacuum tube radio out of the basement. I’m looking for two HAM set with such shielding, or tube sets, as one will remain a backup. An underground Faraday cage may be good enough.

    I think our collective “Plan B” should be for all of us to live like it’s 1955 . . . I remember it well, even had a 21″ Philco b&w set, home air conditioning, AND professional basketball!

    **The world’s foremost remote viewing teacher, Edward A. Dames, Major, U.S. Army (ret.) is a decorated military intelligence officer and an original member of the U.S. Army prototype remote viewing training program. He served as the training and operations officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s psychic intelligence (PSIINT) collection unit, and currently serves as executive director for the Matrix Intelligence Agency, a private consulting group. Matrix’s confidential clients include major corporations & investors, inclusive of investment/hedge fund managers.

    Comment by Shelly Jacobs -

  30. The reasons you point out are exactly the reason we need net neutrality. otherwise, the bandwidth and ability to get through the “jam”, as you call it, goes to the highest bidder, not those who might presumably “need” it, as you point out.

    Right now, power goes to those who control innovation at the ends of the network (apple and google), not the provider of commodity pipes. This is how it should be. I dont trust Concast with the internet.

    Comment by Aaron Erickson -

  31. Who decides what bits are more important than other bits? Is it the government or is it the network operator? For emergency services, much like our current 911 infrastructure, I am sure the government could be an extremely limited role and regulate that emergency calls get priority, but what about the rest of the packets? The cable industry, Cisco, and others have made it very clear in how they want to regulate the bits – whoever has the deepest pockets wins. I imagine you’ll keep framing the debate as not about money but about how users of bit torrents are stopping doctors from saving lives. Damn those freeloaders using networks that were built with hefty subsidies from the public from using the networks as they please. Can’t they ever just think about the children?

    At least be honest in this debate – You want your content to get the top priority and you are more than happy to pay for it. Freedom is great if you can afford it 😉

    Comment by Anthony -

  32. Sorry about some of the spelling in the post above, your blog doesn’t like my Iphone very much.Or my Iphone doesn’t like your blog very much. Lol.

    Comment by Jeff -

  33. I think that the future of technologies is oing to be advanced integration into everyday ice. In the next ten years there will be a boom in cheap technology that will allow for further integration in vehicles, homes, hospitals, fire and police departments. While no one can gauge to just what degree and how quickley and to what extent this integration occurs, it should improve emergency response times, and the quality of care in our health care system.

    Go Mavs!

    Comment by Jeff -

  34. Yes, because I look forward to a world free of net neutrality where our 911 service operators have to pay Comcast and ATT extra to make sure the calls get through with priority. My tax dollars at work.

    I also look forward to a world free of network neutrality where Comcast and ATT can degrade the quality of Hulu, CBS, YouTube, and NBC once they have the per-subscriber online TV access you promote.

    I could give up net neutrality if something was done to prevent the duopoly from limiting traffic for business reasons rather than social ones.

    Comment by Andrew -

  35. You are right. Look at how many landlines are being unplugged daily. Our reliance on technology is HUGE! It will only increase in importance. However, let’s keep the government out of this arena. Let what’s left of the “free” market do it’s thing!

    Comment by Steve -

  36. And as for the medical care part. I’m more worried about first getting UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE (Socialism according to the ultra far right, who cares more about corporate profits than lives!) than how well the data can be sent to some outsourced medical worker in India and China.

    Comment by Spike Rogan -

  37. Most jobs and organizations (let alone corporate media), seem to think ALL Americans are on-line. Many seem to forget we still have two older generations this is “greek to”.

    And millions of poor americans who can’t afford even a shitty Dell let alone a Mac.

    Then again most employers excpect all employees drive and own a car. Again plenty of poor are not able to work for that.

    Maybe before we worry about the speed of the web, lets worry about the speed of poverty rapidly taking over America.

    Comment by Spike Rogan -

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