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Don't worry, that system's not actually active – oh, wait …

Fat-fingered admin escaped because the last false alarm was caused by a frozen pizza and a toaster oven

who, me? Welcome once again, gentle reader, to the quiet corner of The Register we call Who, Me? in which readers unburden themselves by confessing tales of work-related mishaps and narrow escapes.

This week meet "Raj" who was a young man in his very prime back in the 1990s, working for a firm that, among other things, manufactured air traffic control systems. As you might imagine, such technology is highly sensitive and precisely calibrated, and the company accordingly had numerous safety systems in place.

One such system was a halon fire suppression system protecting the server room. When entering the system test area, staff were to follow a procedure that required them to press a button on a panel next to the door to deactivate the halon system – halon being a very bad thing for humans.

Likewise, upon leaving the room one was required to press the button again to reactivate it. Simple enough, right?


The button was on one of those membrane keypads, with little tactile feedback to indicate the positions of buttons. You were supposed to look at the keypad to see where to press.

After a while, of course, people – including Raj – got used to the position of the button and relied on muscle memory rather than visual checks.

And that would probably have been fine – if the firm never changed the panel. And at this point you know pretty much where this is going, don't you?

One day Raj entered the room and switched off the halon system as always. When he'd finished his business in the test area, he left the room and reached back to press the off switch – at which point "an alarm started sounding, accompanied by large flashing red lights."

This was not supposed to happen.

Taking a moment to inspect the panel, Raj realised that where the "off" button had been for ever so long there was now a "fire alarm" button. And he had pressed it.

Thankfully the deputy manager of the test area arrived shortly thereafter to explain that the new keypad a recent upgrade - so recent that the fire alarm button was not yet linked to the local fire brigade.

Raj was told not to worry, if he called reception and asked them to deactivate the not-yet-an-alarm.

So Raj did what he was told and called reception, and they told him the same thing: don't worry, it's not even properly hooked up yet. We'll just switch that off.

Next came silence. And then came the unmistakable sound of sirens. Sirens getting louder. And closer. And louder again.

It seems that the system was rather more fully operational that had previously been anticipated.

Cut to later that day, and Raj had a Serious Talk with his manager, who told him the firm had been handed a stiff penalty for the false fire alarm. It wasn't all his fault though: this had been the second fire alarm that month. The previous one was the result of someone turning a toaster oven on its side to cook a frozen pizza …

We don't imagine too many Reg readers would try to use a toaster oven on its side (even though pizza is the perfect food). But if you have any tales of not-quite-brilliance from which you think others may learn, and you emerged unscathed, please feel free to confide in us via an email to Who, Me? and we will share with the world. ®

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