A computer virus took out the automated response system of a major New Zealand ambulance company last week, leaving drivers in the dark and forcing employees to adjust their emergency procedures for two days.
The Nov. 9 malware attack hit the communication centers of St. John, an ambulance company serving nearly 90 percent of New Zealand's population. For two days, the computer systems that allow call center employees to alert drivers via on-board mobile data terminals (MDT) were disabled.
Ambulance communications operations manager Alan Goudge told New Zealand's Waikato Times that "anti-virus software protected the systems" — some of which field more than 1 million calls per year — but the service related to paging and radio was affected. "Backup systems immediately took over when it was detected and the workload as managed manually."
With their MDTs down, drivers were unable to receive basic information about the emergencies to which they responded. When St. John dispatchers received a 111 call (the New Zealand version of 911), they had to call drivers on landlines, or relay information about emergencies in person.
The virus has been contained, and Goudge said the company is investigating how it entered St. John's system, who sent it and for what reason. He said there have been no reports so far indicating that emergency response times were slowed.
When cyber crime and human health collide, the results can be shocking and disastrous. In August at the Black Hat Security Conference, researcher Jay Radcliffe showed how a hacker could remotely tamper with two electronic insulin pumps.