Lethal Ignorance

Just a few hours after I wrote my piece Penetration yesterday, I saw a report from the Romanian Transportation Ministry that demonstrated how ignorance of the internet can actually kill you.

On January 20, 2014 in what I call the Frozen Tears debacle, a plane crashed on the Cluj-Alba county line in a very rugged mountainous area. Although all those on board managed to survive, it took over six hours for rescuers to arrive and two people died from their injuries, a third person being released from the hospital just yesterday.

Although not published on their website, the media obtained an interim report on the crash from the Transportation Ministry (MT) that includes transcripts from the various governmental agencies who were tasked with finding the downed plane.

It should be noted that there were multiple failures that day, and what follows is only a look at a part of it.

ROMATSA = Romanian civil aviation authority
ISU = every county has an “emergency incident” response team called the ISU
STS = roughly equivalent to a combination of the American NSA and NRO, the STS also manages the emergency number (112) dispatch centers

The plane crashed a few minutes after 4:00 pm (1600). One of the survivors (not named in the MT report) but most likely Doctor Radu Zamfir (the least injured passenger) called 112, requesting help.

He did not know where he was, which is understandable as he was on a snowy mountaintop in dense fog and he had just survived a plane crash. He did, however, know approximately where he was (between Scarisoara and Huedin) and where the plane had been heading (to Oradea). Apparently he had a “smart” phone and someone suggested that he try to locate himself via the Google Maps application.

He successfully got a finding back from Google Maps (showing once again that Romanian mobile phone coverage is phenomenal) that he was at Latitude 46.6023 and Longitude 22.98421. This got passed to the Alba ISU. Meanwhile ROMATSA was still trying to find the coordinates of the downed plane as neither the emergency beacon nor the Romanian-written software on board was functioning properly (a separate failure).

By 4:25 (1625), the ROMATSA official handling their emergency response center used his personal mobile phone to call ISU Alba and obtain the coordinates that the survivor had acquired from Google Maps. Nonetheless, nobody at ROMATA seemingly knew how to “interpret” the coordinates.

Somewhere along the line, the ISU Cluj got involved as it was suspected that the plane had crashed inside Cluj (county). At 6:51 pm (1851), nearly three hours after the crash, the downed plane still hadn’t been located. The ISU Cluj then called ROMATSA to “re-confirm” the coordinates.

Translation of the phone conversation transcript is my doing:

ROMATSA: Hello, this is flight control center.

ISU Cluj: I haven’t forgotten about you, but my people still haven’t reached the crash site yet.

ROMATSA: But you have the coordinates, right?

ISU Cluj: I do.

ROMATSA: Can you tell me what they are?

ISU Cluj: Hold on a second. Yes, it’s Latitude 46.6023 and Longitude 22.98421.

ROMATSA: Where did you get those coordinates?

ISU Cluj: From the STS [112 emergency dispatcher].

ROMATSA: We’re not familiar with that format. When you get an update, let us know.

Ten minutes later (1901), the ISU Cluj called ROMATSA back.

ROMATSA: Listen, those coordinates you gave us were in a format we’re not familiar with. Don’t you have a Lat/Long in the degrees, minutes and seconds format?

ISU Cluj: No.

ROMATSA: Don’t you know how to convert it?

ISU Cluj: No, I don’t. Those are the coordinates the STS gave us.

Mind you, this was just one failure amongst many that day. However it just goes to show you how ignorance of the internet can be fatally lethal.

Google Maps (as well as many other online mapping programs) use decimalized long/lat coordinates, which is why the survivor got his location in that format. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle he had an internet-capable phone and was able to get a sufficiently good signal to even get those coordinates when none of the governmental agencies were able to find him, not via a military radar (located just a few kilometers away), not from triangulating his signal, not from the phone provider and not from the plane’s beacon and/or software.

What makes this so tragic is that decimalized Long/Lat coordinates can be converted into degrees, minutes and seconds (the older format) in the blink of an eye, if you use the internet. All you have to do is go to your favorite search engine (and it doesn’t even have to be Google) and type “convert longitude” and you’ll get a wide variety of calculators to do it for you.

Secondly, the survivor got his coordinates from Google Maps. If you go to Google Maps online and type in those decimalized coordinates, you’ll get a location that was approximately one kilometer from where the plane crashed. In other words, Google Maps could’ve saved their lives if only someone in the government was smart enough to use the internet.

Google Maps will also, at the click of a button, convert their decimalized Long/Lat coordinates into the older format of degrees, minutes and seconds. What makes this even worse is that you don’t even need to be online to convert these two formats as there is a simple formula that you can do with a pen and paper:

Decimal Degrees = Degrees + minutes/60 + seconds/3600

Yet somehow ISU Cluj “guessed” that the plane crashed at another location which was nearly six kilometers away, which is why it took rescuers so long to find it.

And not one person, not at ROMATSA, not in either ISU Cluj or ISU Alba nor even at the STS (or the Interior Ministry) was bright enough to log onto the internet and use Google Maps (or a conversion calculator) despite the fact that the survivor told them that he got his coordinates from Google Maps.

ISU Cluj is run by Colonel Dorin Ungur, a fat old dinosaur from the Communist era who clearly doesn’t have even the most basic grasp of the internet. Neither does Ioan Rus (no relation to the former Interior Minister), who was in charge of the STS emergency dispatch center that day, stating (my translation):

From from what I know, Doctor Zamfir didn’t tell anyone his coordinates. It’s not the STS’s job to find planes or to locate mobile phones or people.

I have no idea whose job it is to locate mobile phones.

Of course that’s little solace to people who call 112 precisely because they need to be rescued and naively assume that it IS the STS’s job to find them (as happened yesterday in a separate incident in Constanta when it took the STS over two hours to locate some people who got lost in heavy fog).

And Colonel Ungur also absolved himself of any responsibility (again, my translation):

ISU Cluj isn’t to blame here but we do admit there were some mistakes in the communication of inexact information.

The coordinates that we gave to the rescue teams were the ones we got from ROMATSA.


Internet? Never heard of it!
ISU director Colonel Dorin Ungur, mechanical typewriters and buggy whips not pictured

None of these people have been reprimanded, demoted or fired and all still enjoy their comfortably large government salaries. As you can see here, Colonel Ungur owns 2 cars, 1 apartment, 2 houses, 1 “vacation house” and 2 farms and has a salary of 57 million (old) lei per month (1270 euros), but apparently doesn’t own a single computer.

And that, dear readers, is how ignorance can literally kill you.

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