Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 17, 2013

At times you must set technology aside and rely on good common sense

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Years ago I was a fan of cop shows such as “Hawaii Five-O” and “Dragnet,” and I loved the comic strip “Dick Tracy.” All of the procedures and investigations fascinated me, and the shows’ writers kept finding lots of ways to stoke the drama. One device the shows used frequently was tracing phone calls.

The villains would call with the ransom demands, taunts or just for the heck of it. The cops would try to keep them talking as long as possible so the call could be traced; technicians usually needed five minutes to trace a call to its origin. Cops would taunt the villains or use other ploys to make them lose track of time.

Sometimes the call was traced and sometimes it wasn’t; it all depended on what the plot required. Those instances really date the old shows now. These 1960s technicians are doing things one of today’s teen-age girls could do in 30 seconds.

The heroes in “Dick Tracy” often turned to a technology mogul named Diet Smith for tools. His company created anti-gravity spaceships and personal anti-gravity scooter things for the police. I think he even invented Dick Tracy’s iconic two-way wrist radio/TV. We might be seeing something like those radios in stores pretty soon. I’ve watched commercials for them. I still remember one series of strips in which Tracy was tracking down a fiend making obscene phone calls. This was in the era before cell phones, so the guy had to tap into lines strung on telephone poles.

Smith showed Tracy and company his new invention, the “Playback.” It could trace phone calls instantly and record the phone number on tape.

Tracy tested the device by leaving the Diet Smith company and calling from a random phone booth. Yes, I read this comic that long ago. There were still phone booths on street corners. The Playback immediately traced the call.

“Fantastic!” Tracy exclaimed.

Today’s kids wouldn’t be so impressed by Diet Smith’s technology. The Playback device was about the size of a refrigerator and used old-fashioned magnetic tape on spools. That technology now fits in your pocket.

Tracing calls instantly was fantastic in the late 1960s. Now just about every 911 center can trace a land line telephone call, and this technology is in homes, too. When I’m watching television, an incoming telephone number flashes on the screen. I avoid a lot of telemarketer calls that way. Incoming numbers also materialize on my cell phone and my phones at home. What Dick Tracy called fantastic is now commonplace and available at your local store. I’m still waiting for the anti-gravity space ships and the moon bases.

Of course, this technology isn’t foolproof. The 911 center needs accurate physical addresses for the system.

A mail box number isn’t enough to guide rescue squads or fire departments to a location when emergencies are reported. Mercer County and McDowell County 911 centers have been updating their databases so dispatchers will immediately have correct addresses. Of course, many homes now use cell phones instead of land lines. That’s why it is important to be ready to describe a home’s exact location. Many cell phones have GPS tracing, but that is not a 100 percent guarantee first responders will be able to find you.

I’ve seen times when global positioning systems have sent their user off into the wild blue yonder. There’s something about mountains that confuse GPS units from time to time.

I still remember the time when singer Stella Parton visited Bluefield to do a show. For some bizarre technological reason, her tour bus’s GPS navigator told the driver to leave Interstate 77 and go up East River Mountain. That road is a challenge for a car, never mind a big tour bus. They eventually managed to leave the mountain and go into Bluefield.

Technology keeps getting more sophisticated and useful, but we cannot rely on it 100 percent. The 911 centers need accurate addresses if dispatchers are to send first responders to the rescue. If your GPS is telling you that a spooky gravel road is the route to Bluefield, you might want to turn around. When the two-way wrist radios or cell phones arrive, we will have to remember things like not wearing them in the shower and keeping them recharged.

 Dick Tracy never seemed to worry about recharging his radio. Maybe it had an atomic battery.

There are times when you must set the technology aside and use your common sense. Our modern gadgets are great, but they cannot do our thinking for us. That piece of hardware between our ears is still the best computer on the planet, so we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at