When starting an adventure, whether in writing or an expedition, the pursuit of proper planning plays a key role in the completion of a mission objective. As this column begins to take shape with the goal of exploring technology in wilderness medicine, an important premise essential for forthcoming explorations of the topic is investigating basic limitations of certain technologies. With that in mind, this installment of our column extends a warm welcome to the insight given by Mr. Marc J. O Connor. Marc is well practiced in tailgate medicine from his time as an Army medic. He has a BA in GIS and remote sensing, an A.A.S. in Computer Science and Information Systems, and has held WEMT and AEMT certifications numerous times. He led a Weapons Technical Intelligence team in Iraq and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School.
Personnel operating in remote environments may have electronic devices cease to operate or function as intended. The failure of an electronic device in a field environment should be considered as a given, not a possibility. Some electronics may be mission essential, such as geophysical devices in a remote survey where failure will cause an early end to the mission. Other devices are life-critical, such as communications in the telemedicine role. Electronic devices are inherently fragile and rely on inherently fragile infrastructures. Without access to technical support resources, lay technical personnel or medical providers may have to troubleshoot and restore the device to operation.
This article provides established and proven guidance in troubleshooting electronic devices and restoring them to service. This tutorial is intended to be applied in an algorithm-like fashion until the device renews operation, the device is referred to advanced technical support, or restorative efforts are abandoned.
Medical providers will find that differential diagnosis and physical assessment skills are highly useful when adapted to electronics troubleshooting. The use of a “body systems” mode of thought will also help in narrowing the potential failure of technologies in the wilderness medicine environment.
Much troubleshooting relies on prior knowledge of the device: it’s design, settings, and proper operation. It is good practice to read all manuals and rehearse setting up and operating the device. This is especially valid for devices and systems with allot accessories, like radios. Know what “right” looks like.
A useful mnemonic for troubleshooting guidance will be familiar to medical providers of all scopes of practice: Antennas, Batteries, Connectors/Cable, Devices, Settings/Software, or ABCDS.
Any radio device, whether receiver or transmitter, will have an antenna. Sometimes this antenna will be integrated into the radio itself and is found internally. Other times the antenna will be external to the radio, attached by a connector or a cable.
For external antennas:
Examine antenna for damage and attempt repair. This includes giving attention to antenna attachments. Consider attachment reinforcement to ruggedize antenna prior to deployment to field operations.
Check polarization of the antenna.
Check direction of antenna if using high-gain (directional antennas) antennas.
Ensure the antenna is not touching a conductive surface like the body of a vehicle, green or wet vegetation or metal components on a roof, or enclosed by conductive shell, like the interior of a vehicle.
Internal antennas, such as those in a handheld GPS, require no outside intervention. Typically, internal antennas fail because of external damage. Internal antennas are rarely an issue.
Antennas should be as high off ground as possible. Every attempt should be made to keep device antennae away from potential electro-magnetic interference. Smartphones, Bluetooth devices, including go-pro cameras, remotes, headphones, pacemakers, headlamps, cameras, avalanche beacons, and rescue personnel radios, may interfere with transmission of data or signal from a device. In the case of avalanche beacons, such effects on signal transmission may result in frequency drift. This may cause potentially permanent damage to the transmission frequency of such a device.
Batteries include all power supplies required by the device and it s systems. Examine batteries for damage, leakage, charge, orientation, and capacity. If possible, use known good batteries or an external power supply to rule out device malfunction. Â Some devices, such as computers and clocks, have a second battery that keeps the device settings during main battery changes. This battery is frequently overlooked. If the device “keeps time” when unplugged, it likely contains one of these batteries. Consider battery removal when devices are not in use to avoid corrosion. If corrosion is detected, field debridement of battery terminals may be accomplished with cotton swab or toothbrush and mixture of baking soda/ water (15ml/ 250ml ratio).
End-users of technology should understand the battery limitations for the devices they employ and mitigate the environmental stresses to the device whenever possible. Batteries are not indestructible and battery performance is highly influenced by temperature. Keep batteries at room temperature, such as the inside of cold weather gear when outside, or include chemical heat packs to bring them to temperature before operation. Keep batteries from trauma.
This includes the cable connecting the antenna to a radio. Check first and determine if each cable/connector is inserted into the proper port. Check connectors for tightnessâ€” they should be only finger-tight. Cable and connectors experience mechanical shock and damage through normal use. Check connectors for termination of cable inside the connector and tightness of connector fasteners (screws, pins). Examine cable for breaks and kinking that could cause an internal (and unnoticed) break while leaving the insulation intact.
Using a multimeter or improvised continuity tester, test each connector pin for continuity. Examine connectors carefully for bent pins or a damaged female connector. Â While commercial testers are widely available , homemade/ improvised devices are widely described on Internet resources.
Cable damage, say when someone trips over the cable, may cause the connector and cable to separate, albeit slightly and unnoticedâ€” only close inspection will show the damage.
Examine all connectors attached to the device for functionality and damage. Ideally, each cable/connector assembly will have a spare “ known good cable .” Manually check each connector and cable; do not rely on visual examination only, which cannot determine if a cable is loose or disconnected inside a connector. Gently pull, twist, and push each cable/connector to determine looseness.
Moisture may find its way into the connector and cause unusual operation. Remove all connectors and air dry.
Many electronic devices are systems of a system or a system composed of other devices. Failure of one component causes the larger device or system to fail. Â Apply this troubleshooting guide on each sub-system or attached device in order to troubleshoot those components.
Consumer electronic devices are frequently factory set and external intervention is seldom required or possible. Other types of electronic devices, like radios and satellite communications, have a number of user settings that must be correct for device operation.
Check all controls for proper settings. Loose knobs may show a correct setting while actually being miss-set. The same is true of switches. Settings are a common source of failure and easily remedied. However, the device operator must know what settings are required ahead of time.
Settings may change. Write all settings down. Â You might include a simple drawing of the device, the controls location, and its proper setting in event that untrained personnel will have to place the device in operation without assistance. Important documentation should be in hardcopy in addition to electronic storage.
Software includes firmware, operating systems, and other installed applications needed to operate the device or that provide functionality.Â
Software may simply be uninstalled then reinstalled. Firmware like BIOS/UEFI is reinstalled/installed or ‘flashed’ following specific instructions.
Device users should consider updates to OS, firmware of peripheral devices, and specific applications prior to leaving front-country resources and network availability . It is not uncommon for backcountry travelers to find incongruity between an outdated app attempting to work with an updated operating system. Â Consider strongly permanent media, such as DVD/ Flash Storage, to hold all needed Operating Systems, drivers, and applications for field reinstall. This has saved the day more than once.
The same is true of other types of firmware. Failure to properly flash the firmware can, and likely will, render the device permanently unusable or require escalation to advanced technical support.
It is vitally important that administrative (root) passwords be made available to field personnel. Otherwise, access to the administrative account is impossible and software troubleshooting is made difficult. Do not outfox yourself with passwords and password security. Â
This troubleshooting tutorial follows years of Information Technology and electronics application in commercial, military, and field environments.