Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Single point failure and triage
When my lovely wife and I were out on the water, we overheard a call for help from a powerboat. They were in contact with the Coast Guard. It wasn't anything major. Their battery was dead so they could not start their engine. Boat US was notified and was on the way.
Long time readers know I'm a belt and suspenders type guy. If I had a powerboat, it would have a second outboard small enough to pull start. Ideally, it would have the ability to charge a battery. (like the 6 hp outboard on my sailboat.) That way it would be possible to charge the dead battery while slowly making headway.
Growing up on lakes, I had friends who had powerboats. Back then, the biggest outboards on those boats was about 50 hp. In a pinch, with a strong arm, they could be pull started. We did it often enough. Sure beat the heck out of trying to paddle a powerboat back to the dock. Big outboards are much more common today and there is no pull starting them.
The day we heard the distress call we were sailing down the long channel back to the boat launch. Winds were favorable and we were riding a rising tide. We lost the wind in a narrow channel, but by then we were only a couple hundred feet from the landing. I fired up the outboard, but we could have easily paddled and/or polled the rest of the way.
Sure, I felt clever enough, but this was the same channel back in February where we ran out of gas, the winds were against us, the tide going out, and it was dark. Yep, felt like an idiot then. Helpful fishermen towed us the rest of the way. Since then we've added three times the gasoline capacity, installed a depth gage and carry a powerful spotlight. Even I get caught ill prepared -once.
The boat with a dead battery is a perfect illustration of single point failures. One critical thing fails and it's over. Modern man lives with single point failure systems all the time. Here it was a boat's battery, but it could be his house's electrical, water, or sanitation system. Even people's food supply is just-in-time or not at all.
I wondered why people tolerate so many single point failure points in their lives. Then it occurred to me. They are used to help being just a call away. The guy with the boat called the Coast Guard who sent help immediately. People expect power lines to be repaired, streets cleared after storms, stores restocked, FEMA to rescue them, and police and fire to be just minutes away. Sometimes it even happens that way. Other times, not so much.
Emergency services work best when there are few emergencies to deal with at once. One boat in trouble is no big deal. However, if there were suddenly 100 boats in trouble at the same time, it'd be a different story. That's when a little something called triage comes into play. Most civilians are not too familiar with the concept.
Roughly, it goes like this. In a big disaster resources are insufficient to deal with everything at the same time. So things get sorted into three categories. Those that can't be handled with the resources at hand. Nothing will get done for these people. Nothing. Nada. Zip. They ain't even gonna try. On the other end of the scale are the people who might need help, but aren't going to die in the short term. The boat with the dead battery fits into that category. It's not on fire or sinking, so it can wait. In EMS it would be non life threatening injuries. People are hurt and suffering, but they aren't going to die in the next few minutes. Between those extremes are those that you have a reasonable chance of helping. With luck, you can help most or all the people in that category.
In a big disaster, do you really want to trust in the triage system? Will your problem fall in that narrow sweet spot where help is available? Heck, even if you aren't going to die, why deal with more pain and discomfort than you need to?
Look around for those failure points in the things you count on. Then imagine help will not be on the way. More often than not, you'll find there are relatively cheap and easy solutions that will make all the difference.