Broken fax machine renders US government office unreachable

'Office Space' remains surprisingly accurate, even in government offices a decade later.

Offices are breeding grounds for horror stories about hardware. Whether there’s a computer from hell or a printer that just won’t feed paper smoothly, you’re guaranteed to have heard at least one story. Sometimes they’re also embarrassing, like from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).

Faxing through to the OSD hasn’t been possible for the past two weeks, and nobody was quite sure why. As it turns out, their fax machine has been down and could remain down for the foreseeable future.

It’s as funny as it is saddening. The OSD oversees the U.S. Military, but it can’t replace a likely-ancient fax machine. The strange sense of amusement doesn’t end there, however. MuckRock quotes the OSD’s section chief on the following:

“[the office] will likely need to procure (purchase) a new fax machine. However, that purchase will not occur until the start of the new fiscal year (at the earliest)."

Fax might have faded away with the advent of email but it is by no means dead, as this news proves. If you’re interested in sending a request to the OSD, you might want to wait till November at this rate.

Source: MuckRock | Image via Fanpop

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37 Comments

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Is there any reason they couldn't just use a virtual fax system (hosted in-house)? It would save a huge amount of toner/ink and paper.

When someone sends them a fax, it gets converted into an e-mail and sent to the relevant department or person. If the government need to reply, they could use a print to fax or e-mail to fax gateway.

There's no need to have a physical fax machine any more.

It's pretty bad that they can't even buy a new fax machine. You'd think they could easily buy a new one, but there cheap as usual.

I've been in the office machine business for over 30 years. When fax machines really took off in the 80's, getting people (mostly law firms & doctors) to upgrade to them was difficult. Most had a messenger delivery or overnight service. They wouldn't get rid of that, because "we've always had a messenger". Now, we can't get them to get rid of them, and go to secure email, encrypted scanning etc, because, "we've always had a fax machine". I have one hospital, with over 300 fax machines. I asked their communications guy why they wouldn't get rid of them. He said partly because of HIPPA, and partly do to security. When he explained to me they couldn't guarantee email OUTSIDE of their intranet, it made sense. Even if sending encrypted or secure email, it is POSSIBLE that you could type the email address wrong, and it could in theory be received by the wrong person. Granted, they most likely wouldn't be able to open it, but, you think a slip & fall lawyer cares? The odds of entering an incorrect fax number, and it actually going somewhere, are pretty nill. I hate working on them because most of the time, the issue is trying to hook an ANALOG fax, to a VoIP line. The network guys, for obvious reasons, place the ATA boxes in the network cabinet, and run phone lines to where the fax is located. If it is a considerable distance, the loop current isn't enough for the "ding-a-ling" signal to trip the CML to open the line and it never answers, or the bandwith isn't correct on the line and you get a signal degradation causing errors. Getting them to put the ATA box close to the fax is a PITA!
I hope faxes finally fade away, soon, but I understand why people don't want to give it up.

I must be the only one aware that government fax machines are not your off-the-shelf machines at your local store. Second, the fax machines are more than likely placed in a high secure area with very limited access and no other communication access at the location (think of a bunker room with nothing but fax machines). It could easily take several days to realize faxes are not being received as they would first need to track down the sender, verify it was sent, then track through all the logs on the receiving end to verify it never printed.

Since these faxes all communicate through secure, digital communication lines not just anyone can flip a switch and resolve the issue.

Fax faded away? you obviously don't work in business! Gawd businesses use faxes like wild still, heck we have a 10 line fax server at work due to the number of contracts we have faxed to us daily. no actual machines, you just fax to the number the server ties the number to an exchange mailbox... we use brooktrout cards for the faxing still.. heck for legal reasons lots of companies have to use them, to get a real on paper signature, that or have someone fedex the documents in... a lot of places still don't accept "digitally signed" yet for legal reasons...

But, but... Today's office-oriented printers often feature built-in pdf generation and mailing support, and then the receiving end will both get it automatically catalouged digitally thanks to mail, and be able to print it out for signatures as they need to. Clearly a more flexible and environmentally friendly way of working to me.

Nashy said,
They can't just grab $50 from petty cash and buy a new one?

Apart from that, what about email, jesus.


but that wouldn't be wasting money, and everyone knows that the gov loves to spend your money!

Theres a piece of paper stuck under the bell striker [The Andromeda Strain]

Faxes are just a liable if not more to interception [ask the Americans] and you can dial the wrong number
Email has read receipts,signed signatures and encryption algorithms unlike faxes which are sent in plain text
Not having a back up system or replacements is also poor IT management especially for such a department.

Edited by arachnoid, Sep 15 2013, 12:25pm :

You'd have to dial a wrong number that happens to be a fax machine. Email on the other hand is usually stored on one or more 3rd party Internet connected servers. It's not the transmission phase that's the main worry. It's the retrieval at the storage site, duplication, forwarding, redirects, and other common email events. That's why we can't send medical information out over email without encrypting the contents and no one knows how to handle encrypted contents if we do.

I am an IT guy at a library. At our station branch we have 2 fax machines. They are the only thing keeping me with crappy Verizon copper phone lines.

A lot of poorer people still fax all their stuff to companies.

I have my fax connected to an ooma box and it works fine. You do have to set a fax machine mode in the configuration. I don't even have copper connected to the building since they brought in the fiber.

majortom1981 said,
I am an IT guy at a library. At our station branch we have 2 fax machines. They are the only thing keeping me with crappy Verizon copper phone lines.

A lot of poorer people still fax all their stuff to companies.

Businesses still fax. Courts and lawyers still fax. I don't know a whole lot of "poor" people with a fax machine, actually.

And copper is crappy? Funny, my copper phone line was the only thing working after Hurricane Katrina...

Only something government related like this could take that long to rectify!

Slower than molasses in the middle of a Michigan winter, as usual!

cork1958 said,
Only something government related like this could take that long to rectify!

Slower than molasses in the middle of a Michigan winter, as usual!

Perhaps because of sequestration, they can't buy any durable equipment until the next fiscal year. Blame an intractable Congress.

fuzi0719 said,
Perhaps because of sequestration, they can't buy any durable equipment until the next fiscal year. Blame an intractable Congress.

So someone can't go out and pay for a fdax machine out of their own pocket? How much does a fax machine cost now?

So someone can't go out and pay for a fdax machine out of their own pocket? How much does a fax machine cost now?

Who would want to? It's their money, not their job's. They'd like to spend it on stuff they want, or their kid's want, or something.

c.grz said,

So someone can't go out and pay for a fdax machine out of their own pocket? How much does a fax machine cost now?

It depends on what kind of fax machine we're talking about. Is a big system with T1s plugged into it or just your average single line POTS fax machine.

Spicoli said,
Unreachable? How about email, snail mail, and voice telephone?

Email can be intercepted and is not reliable (you don't know if they've got it or if there's a server error or mailbox error, etc.), voice telephone doesn't send documental proof, snail mail is slow an expensive and with fax you pretty much know what you are getting. You dial, if it's busy; they haven't got it. If it gets through, you try to send the data, if you don't get an error back and get the correct code back, it's been accepted and printed, else, there's something wrong or it's ran out of ink/toner/paper/etc.

Brian Miller said,
Why are people still using faxes?
Hey, the 70's called...

Tell me about it. I was doing a business eligabiity check for an employee the other day and the check agency wanted it on headed paper by fax.

Think that's bad, i was changing a companies hosting accounts for their redesigned website the other day and their DNS/domain company wanted a fax on both my and the companies headed paper, listing the changes. FFS.

Spicoli said,
There's not really a good alternative for quickly sending signed documents over a secure connection. HIPAA also allows fax and don't allow email.

Digital signing has been around for decades. There's also print and scan, not to mention that typing your name on the dotted line also completes a legal contract.

MikeChipshop said,

Digital signing has been around for decades. There's also print and scan, not to mention that typing your name on the dotted line also completes a legal contract.

Typing your name does not count as a signature. Let me ask around your average office what digital singing is see who knows how to do it. Why go through all the steps of scanning and emailing when you just pop it in the fax and you're done? You skipped HIPAA requirements. The fact is fax is the quickest and easiest way to get the job done.

Spicoli said,

Typing your name does not count as a signature.

I think you need to have a quiet word with my business solicitor and the small claims court that backed my case against a rouge client last year, who had signed the contract this way, as you obviously know their industry better than them.

Spicoli said,

Let me ask around your average office what digital singing is see who knows how to do it.

Just because a fair few businesses are slow to move with the times, doesn;t mean it's not a legitimate method.

Spicoli said,

Why go through all the steps of scanning and emailing when you just pop it in the fax and you're done? You skipped HIPAA requirements. The fact is fax is the quickest and easiest way to get the job done.

You're forgetting the point of this whole topic, Fax machines are old, antiquated and barely fit for purpose any more. Hence the discussion in the first place.

MikeChipshop said,

I think you need to have a quiet word with my business solicitor and the small claims court that backed my case against a rouge client last year, who had signed the contract this way, as you obviously know their industry better than them.

Anecdotes don't work.


MikeChipshop said,

Just because a fair few businesses are slow to move with the times, doesn;t mean it's not a legitimate method.

It's not a few. It's basically all except a few special high security categories.

MikeChipshop said,


You're forgetting the point of this whole topic, Fax machines are old, antiquated and barely fit for purpose any more. Hence the discussion in the first place.

You could say the same for pens, but I find them very useful.

Spicoli said,

Anecdotes don't work.

Basically you're plain wrong and without me trawling the net for evidence (i don;t have time to waste on you) you're not going to listen.

As for the other points, i respectably disagree with you.

Spicoli said,

Typing your name does not count as a signature.

The US Federal Court system would like to have a word with you... Along with several states that have converted to eFiling. Beginning next year, every pleading I file in court will be "signed" with my name typed out.

Sorry to say, but in many ways, people just feel more "secured" when holding onto a piece of dead tree. It goes without saying that OSD isn't the only government body that does this. Even in private or financial sectors, some still require fax with written signatures.

SmithBarney from CitiGroup or Fidelity still require me to send fax from time to time. In many corporate buildings, there is often at least one fax machine for outgoing purpose. It is never going away completely, sorry to say.

Same goes to many merchants that refuse to accept digital coupons unless they are printed on a piece of dead tree.