Entries Tagged "fire"

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Physical Key Escrow

This creates far more security risks than it solves:

The city council in Cedar Falls, Iowa has absolutely crossed the line. They voted 6-1 in favor of expanding the use of lock boxes on commercial property. Property owners would be forced to place the keys to their businesses in boxes outside their doors so that firefighters, in that one-in-a-million chance, would have easy access to get inside.

We in the computer security world have been here before, over ten years ago.

Posted on July 14, 2011 at 6:38 AMView Comments

Locked Call Boxes and Banned Geiger Counters

Fire Engineering magazine points out that fire alarms used to be kept locked to prevent false alarms:

Q: Prior to 1870, street corner fire alarm pull boxes were kept locked. Why were they kept locked and how did a person gain access to ‘pull the box?’

A: They were kept locked due to false alarms. Nearby shopkeepers or beat cops carried the keys.

According to Robert Cromie in The Great Chicago Fire (Thomas Nelson: 1994, p. 33), this may have been one reason for the slow response to the fire:

William Lee, the O’Leary’s neighbor, rushed into Goll’s drugstore, and gasped out a request for the key to the alarm box. The new boxes were attached to the walls of stores or other convenient locations. To prevent false alarms and crank calls, the boxes were locked, and the keys given to trustworthy citizens nearby.

What happened when Lee made his request is not clear. Only one fact emerges from the confusion: No alarm was registered from any box in the vicinity of the fire until it was too late to do any good.

Apparently, Lee said that Goll refused to give him the key because he’d already seen a fire engine go past; Goll said he actually did pull the alarm, twice, but if so it must not have worked.

(There’s more about what sounds like a really bad communications failure, but it’s a little too hard for me to read on the Amazon website.)

Here’s more:

But did you know that the fire burned for over half an hour before an alarm was ever sounded? Alarm boxes were actually kept locked in those days, to prevent false alarms!

When the first alarm box was finally opened and the lever pulled, the alarm somehow did not get through. The fire dispatcher was playing a guitar for a couple of girls at the time and he kept on serenely strumming, completely unawares. After the fire had been growing and blazing for nearly an hour a watchman screamed at the dispatcher to sound an alarm, which he did, and the first three engines, two hose wagons, and two hook and ladders were sent out—but in the wrong direction!

At first the dispatcher refused to sound another alarm, hoping to avoid further confusion.

Compare this with a proposed law in New York City that will require people to get a license before they can buy chemical, biological, or radiological attack detectors:

The legislation—which was proposed by the Bloomberg administration and would be the first of its kind in the nation—would empower the police commissioner to decide whether to grant a free five-year permit to individuals and companies seeking to “possess or deploy such detectors.” Common smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors would not be covered by the law, the Police Department said. Violations of the law would be considered a misdemeanor.

Why does the administration think such a law is necessary? Richard A. Falkenrath, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, told the Council’s Public Safety Committee at a hearing today, “Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms and unnecessary public concern by making sure that we know where these detectors are located and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”

The law would also require anyone using such a detector—regardless of whether they have obtained the required permit—to notify the Police Department if the detector alerted them to a biological, chemical or radiological agent. “In this way, emergency response personnel will be able to assess threats and take appropriate action based on the maximum information available,” Dr. Falkenrath said.

False positives are a problem with any detection system, and certainly putting Geiger counters in the hands of everyone will mean a lot of amateurs calling false alarms into the police. But the way to handle that isn’t to ban Geiger counters. (Just as the way to deal with false fire alarms 100 years ago wasn’t to lock the alarm boxes.) The way to deal with it is by 1) putting a system in place to quickly separate the real alarms from the false alarms, and 2) prosecuting those who maliciously sound false alarms.

We don’t want to encourage people to report everything; that’s too many false alarms. Nor do we want to discourage them from reporting things they feel are serious. In the end, it’s the job of the police to figure out what’s what. I said this in an essay last year:

…these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. In criminal matters, law enforcement is experienced in separating legitimate tips from unsubstantiated fears, and allocating resources accordingly; we should expect no less from them when it comes to terrorism.

EDITED TO ADD (1/18): Two commenters pointed to a 1938 invention: an alarm box that locks up your arm until the fire department sets you free. Yikes.

Posted on January 18, 2008 at 7:44 AMView Comments

New Lithium Battery Rules for U.S. Airplanes

Starting in 2008, there are new rules for bringing lithium batteries on airplanes:

The following quantity limits apply to both your spare and installed batteries. The limits are expressed in grams of “equivalent lithium content.” 8 grams of equivalent lithium content is approximately 100 watt-hours. 25 grams is approximately 300 watt-hours:

  • Under the new rules, you can bring batteries with up to 8-gram equivalent lithium content. All lithium ion batteries in cell phones are below 8 gram equivalent lithium content. Nearly all laptop computers also are below this quantity threshold.
  • You can also bring up to two spare batteries with an aggregate equivalent lithium content of up to 25 grams, in addition to any batteries that fall below the 8-gram threshold. Examples of two types of lithium ion batteries with equivalent lithium content over 8 grams but below 25 are shown below.
  • For a lithium metal battery, whether installed in a device or carried as a spare, the limit on lithium content is 2 grams of lithium metal per battery.
  • Almost all consumer-type lithium metal batteries are below 2 grams of lithium metal. But if you are unsure, contact the manufacturer!

Near as I can tell, this affects pretty much no one except audio/visual professionals. And the TSA isn’t saying whether this is a safety issue or a security issue. They aren’t giving any reason. But those of you who paid close attention to the Second Movie-Plot Threat Contest know of the dangers:

Terrorists camouflages bombs as college textbooks, with detonators hidden in the lithium-ion batteries of various electronics. The terrorist nonchalantly wanders up by the cockpit with his armed textbook and detonates it right after the seat belt sign goes off, but while the plane is still over an inhabited area. Thousands die, with most of the casualties on the ground.

Chat about the ban on FlyerTalk. Does any other country have any similar restrictions?

EDITED TO ADD (12/28): It’s not a TSA rule; it’s an FAA rule.

The FAA has found that current systems for putting out aircraft cargo fires could not suppress a fire if a shipment of non-rechargeable batteries ignited during flight, the release said.

Here’s the actual rule; it’s the DOT that published it. Lithium batteries have been banned as cargo for a long time now. This is the DC-8 fire that led to the ban.

Posted on December 28, 2007 at 3:05 PMView Comments

Firefighters to Fight Terrorism While Doing their Day Jobs

In yet another front in the war on the unexpected, more amateurs are joining the fight against terrorism:

Unlike police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel don’t need warrants to access hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings each year, putting them in a position to spot behavior that could indicate terrorist activity or planning.


When going to private residences, for example, they are told to be alert for a person who is hostile, uncooperative or expressing hate or discontent with the United States; unusual chemicals or other materials that seem out of place; ammunition, firearms or weapons boxes; surveillance equipment; still and video cameras; night-vision goggles; maps, photos, blueprints; police manuals, training manuals, flight manuals; and little or no furniture other than a bed or mattress.

Because it’s such a good idea for people to start fearing firefighters….

Posted on November 27, 2007 at 1:22 PMView Comments

More "War on the Unexpected"

The “War on the Unexpected” is being fought everywhere.

In Australia:

Bouncers kicked a Melbourne man out of a Cairns pub after paranoid patrons complained that he was reading a book called The Unknown Terrorist.

At the U.S. border with Canada:

A Canadian firetruck responding with lights and sirens to a weekend fire in Rouses Point, New York, was stopped at the U.S. border for about eight minutes, U.S. border officials said Tuesday.


The Canadian firefighters “were asked for IDs,” Trombley said. “I believe they even ran the license plate on the truck to make sure it was legal.”

In the UK:

A man who had gone into a diabetic coma on a bus in Leeds was shot twice with a Taser gun by police who feared he may have been a security threat.

In Maine:

A powdered substance that led to a baggage claim being shut down for nearly six hours at the Portland International Jetport was a mixture of flour and sugar, airport officials said Thursday.

Fear is winning. Refuse to be terrorized, people.

Posted on November 21, 2007 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Homeland Security Pork

This article is a perfect illustrating of the wasteful, pork-barrel, political spending that we like to call “homeland security.” And to think we could actually be spending this money on something useful.

When the fire department in the tiny Berkshire hamlet of Cheshire needed a new fire truck, it asked Uncle Sam for a little help.

The response last month was stunning: a $665,962 homeland security grant.

The award was nearly 26 times the annual budget of the volunteer fire department in the town of 3,500. And the rub: The department is not allowed to spend it on a fire truck.


The town does have the Cheshire Cheese Monument, a sizable concrete sculpture of a cheese press commemorating a 1,450-pound cheese hunk given by town elders to Thomas Jefferson in 1801. But its value as a terrorist target is not readily apparent.


…Sweet said he might use some of the money to recruit high school students. Or he might put some of the windfall into a marketing campaign to lure volunteers to Cheshire.

“It’ll be on billboards, TVs, and radio stations, and that kind of stuff,” he said. “We’ll have to spend it wisely.”

How many times is this story being repeated across the country? I’m sure the town needs its fire truck, and I hope it gets it. But this is just appalling.

Posted on February 12, 2007 at 6:20 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.