Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Meeting Murphy

Meeting Murphy
By John Verrico, Spokesman, Science & Technology Directorate
U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Setting up a high-visibility media event - especially one that involves a great deal of technological coordination - requires a lot of advanced thinking about what could go wrong. Beyond the traditional planning affiliated with any live demonstration, adding the complexity of remote
cameras, Webcasting, chemical releases, and an emergency responder training exercise offer whole new avenues to be surprised.

Here's the scenario. The DHS Science & Technology Directorate was demonstrating a new chemical sensor that can be placed inside cellphones and could warn people about the presence of deadly carbon monoxide gas and other hazardous chemicals. The sensors could not only alert the
cellphone owner, but could also contact emergency responders with detailed information about the gas concentration and location.

We set up an elaborate scenario with manikins in a "hotel room" exposed to a dangerous carbon monoxide leak. Because the gas chamber had to be sealed off and we couldn't have people inside, we used remote cameras to capture when the cellphone in the room alerts and when the rescue squad breaks in to save the occupants.

We could not operate the remote cameras wirelessly because of signal dead zones at the fire fighter training center, so we ran cables between the buildings. We conducted multiple dry runs, testing all the equipment and connections and everything was perfect for the event.

So now we have several dozen people in a conference room, including television cameras, and several hundred more watching live on our Webcast. After being subjected to a series of scientific presentations about the development of the technology and all the obligatory partnership thank you messages, the crowd was ready for some action.

The gas built up in the room, the cellphone called for help and the rescue squad was deployed. Let's cut to the remote cameras to see what is going on in the "hotel room"...but the signal was distorted and the image froze for several seconds before ultimately cutting off altogether. No manner of signal pushing or gizmo tweaking would bring the cameras back on line.

No one got to see the rescue, which was the climax of the entire demonstration!

What could have gone wrong?

We checked, double-checked and triple-checked all connections and systems - audio, video, lighting, mult-box, etc. We had foul weather contingencies in place - although we never needed them because the sky was clear and sunny with only the slightest breeze. We had alternate people on stand-by in case someone became ill or missed their cue. We rehearsed several times. It just didn't make sense!

It was, of course, the one thing we never considered. And we didn't discover the answer until later that day when we were cleaning up everything. That's when we found the teeth marks in our cable to the remote cameras.

As we rolled up the damaged cable, muttering expletives under our breath, an inquisitive (and apparently hungry) squirrel chitterred at us from atop a nearby telephone pole.

As I realize that we cannot think of every contingency, I will always remember that sound as squirrel laughter.

We named him Murphy, but we aren't sure if he's related to another squirrel that's currently creating mischief in the baseball world.

John Verrico also serves as the Professional Development Director for the NAGC Board of Directors.


Laura K said...

Great post...there is always one more variable so it's a good thing we like to love on the edge!

This reminds me of a conference call I was coordinating. The call began without incident, but went dead on my end. Apparently the spider eggs that had been growing in the office wall phone connection just had to hatch in the middle of my call. Gotta love mother nature.

Tim Treanor said...

quite the story! (and project)

Josh Folk said...

Quite the story! (and event)