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COURSEY: When Plan B isn't good enough

Everybody needs a Plan B, but in a world run by electronic gadgets that make us dependent on technology that often is a lot smarter than us, it becomes increasingly apparent that we need a Plan C, as well.

That's the message I got, anyway, from a couple of stories in this morning's paper.

The first, on Page 1, described how a wild turkey took flight from a Santa Rosa back yard and, along with frying itself on a power line and breaking the windshield of a new Lexus with its fall, took out the entire 911 emergency dispatch system for Sonoma County – not to mention the computer systems of the county courthouse and jail. When county tech personnel switched over to the emergency backup power system (Plan B), that failed, too.

Plan C was for dispatchers to write down information about emergency calls, and court and jail personnel to slow the wheels of justice to a crawl.

The second story, on Page B1, at first looked like a continuation of the first. "Traffic Control system crashes," read the headline. But it was unrelated to the turkey trouble: The failure of Santa Rosa's computerized traffic-signal control program happened more than two weeks ago, and traffic at certain intersections has been a mess ever since. The backup for that system (Plan B) also was corrupted in the original failure, so Plan C here has been for city staff to rebuild the entire system. That work is almost done.

I sympathize with the city and county folks who are dealing with these failures. On a much smaller scale, I can relate. When my laptop freezes or my email won't connect, it brings productive life to a screeching halt.

My Plan B is to turn off the laptop or close the email program and try again. If that doesn't work, Plan C is to try it again. So is Plan D.

That's OK for a single person working at home. It doesn't work all that well when hundreds of lawyers and judges and jurors and inmates are waiting for the computers to come back to life, or when angry drivers are sitting in traffic waiting for lights to change.

But you have to appreciate the part in Randi Rossmann's story about the county outage where she described "veteran" 911 dispatchers who still "keep paper and pencils at their desk, just in case." The unwritten conclusion is that they have been around long enough that they know how to use those tools, too.

Not a bad Plan C for all of us to keep in mind.


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