Pop quiz: You've got a roomful of electrical equipment. How do you put out a fire?

Careful with that rack, Eugene


Who, Me? A reminder to take care when fiddling with the top shelf in today's edition of Who, Me? Especially when "good" has taken a backseat to "cheap".

Our tale takes us back to the closing decade of the last century and comes from "Joe", a senior techie at a major US East Coast satellite uplink/downlink hub.

"This included a vestigial radio circuit business the management refused to abandon," he told us.

"The video staff knew nothing about the radio operation. The radio staff returned the favour by ignoring the video." Joe, the senior party, was responsible for both sides.

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On overnight shifts, the whole shebang was run by just two operators. One was always from the video side of things. The other might know something about the radio workings, but not always. If there was a crisis with the latter, some improvisation would be needed.

"The radio guys had just gotten a new 400 by 400 matrix switch," recalled Joe happily. "This was the latest toy the radio industry had developed. We could switch any input to any output or multiple outputs. This was modern magic. It filled six racks.

"We had 12 other racks loaded with satellite receivers and transmitters."

It all sounds like a technological marvel for the time. Right up until one learns about how fire suppression worked. Joe told us that halon was the preferred medium since it wouldn't cause the gear to short out when it discharged.

However, mindful of costs, the management opted to save a bit of money and go for an alternative.

"We had a standard fire suppression system that released a deluge of WATER when it was activated."

What could possibly go wrong?

The radio operators had been warned about the sprinkler heads. The video operators noted the concerns, but promptly forgot all about them until the fateful night when The Call came in.

A new radio circuit was urgently needed, but none of the radio operators were on call, just a pair of video operators who had to improvise as best they could.

"The video operator grabbed a receiver from the storeroom. Except the rack was full," explained Joe. "No problem, put it on top of the rack..."

Alas, the height of the rack plus the height of the receiver equalled interference with the sprinkler head and a surprise shower for the tech. In a room stuffed full of electrical devices.

Shocking, we're sure.

Fortunately, only the sprinkler head that had been introduced to the receiver had kicked off. Three racks had to be hurriedly powered down and 30 circuits were lost. It fell to the fire department to turn off the system. In the meantime, the offending sprinkler head was covered with a rag to stop the worst of the spraying.

"Imagine," mused Joe, "what would have happened if all the heads had triggered..."

As is so often the case, the manager who had come up with the wheeze of using water had long departed. Doubtless for more responsibility and a higher pay grade by the time his cost cutting had resulted in what was very much a short, sharp shock.

Decisions taken by the departed can often return to nibble the posterior of the present. Ever wondered if a long-forgotten manager has even woken with Who, Me? on his mind while you're faced with mayhem not of your own making? Let us know with an email. ®

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