by Kenneth Lyen
We had a nationwide electrical blackout recently in Singapore, and everyone tried to make phone calls. Although the telephone lines were not affected by the blackout, the emergency service was soon overloaded by its overwhelming utilisation. The result was that people who had a real emergency were unable to contact any of the emergency services: police, fire, and ambulance.
Fortunately the blackout only lasted one hour. Apart from some people trapped in lifts, some families eating half-cooked food, some chaps with half-withdrawn cash from automated teller machines, and a few others locked out of their own homes when their security system locks froze, there were no other untoward effects. I myself had an early night, and slept through the problem.
During a parliamentary debate, a backbencher asked the Minister whether or not the government would consider setting up a separate hotline during a major blackout, so as to avoid future jamming of the emergency telephone service.
The Minister replied that it was not necessary for such a special hotline because the police and civil defense hotlines were not information hotlines; they were only meant for life-threatening situations or when one needed to call an emergency service like an ambulance.
Pardon? That does not sound right! Assuming the press report was accurate, it looks like even in Singapore, Ministers suffer lapses in logic.
The basic problem is that during an emergency, the average citizens tend to panic. They want to communicate with someone, anyone. Desktop computers are not working because there is no electricity, and hence one cannot access the internet. The television is also not working. Few people own laptop computers or radio sets. So that only leaves the telephone. Fortunately the phone system uses a different power source and remains functioning. If you were a panicking member of the public, wanting to know whats going on, what will you do?
Most of us remember only a couple of public telephone numbers. We know the emergency number and the operator. Thats about all. "Don't panic!" is the most useless advice you can give. Its a given that some of us will panic. No point telling us that we should just stay put, sit in the dark, and whistle a happy tune, so no one ever knows were afraid.
If several hundreds of thousands of us all call the emergency number at the same time, we will cause an almighty jam. Thus the main problem is that if you had a fire in your home, or if you had suffered a heart attack, or you were witnessing a murder, there is no way of getting help. The hot line is now a dead cold line. We can't even shine a bat image in the sky to summon Batman. How do we solve this problem?
Don't tell me "public education". You and I know that no matter how much you educate the public, everything taught evaporates to a diddly squat during a crisis. Okay, on the positive side, there is already in place radio broadcasts during an emergency. But for those who do not own a battery-powered radio, one needs an alternative method of disseminating information. Is it possible to send out a nationwide Short Message System (SMS)? If some such system is possible, then at least one could tell hand phone owners that there is indeed a nationwide blackout, that they should avoid calling the emergency telephone number, and perhaps be given another number to call for up-to-date prerecorded information.
As for the jammed emergency phone line, it is imperative that a line be made available for the genuine emergency caller. This means that when lines are full, one may have to resort to the greatly detested but unavoidable use of prerecorded options... "press 1 if you want to know more about the blackout, press 2 if you want the fire service, press 3 if you want an ambulance, etc.
Looking back, we have become so dependent on electricity that when it is not available, it hits us like a bolt of black lightning. Indeed, when there was a blackout in New York we were really smug, thinking that this could never happen in Singapore. Well, we had to wipe the smugness off our arrogant faces. Yes, we are eating humble pie!