• How to Extinguish a Data Center Fire (literally)

    How do you put out an electrical fire? I can imagine you struggling to remember which extinguisher has the black label and whether you want powder or foam or just a fire blanket. Well, in my illustrious and long career I have seen the evolution of fire-fighting in the glass house, the big computer rooms, and the stories have been hilarious. I stress here that I have never actually experienced a fire in a computer room but the near misses and false alarms make, I hope, interesting reading.

    In the beginning there was CO2 (carbon dioxide).This gas is inert and is heavier than air so it can settle on a fire, displace the oxygen and starve it to death. Unfortunately it is also deadly to humans. It can asphyxiate you at concentrations as low as 7% whereas fire flooding systems use up to 30%. A fire alarm in a CO2 protected glasshouse meant quick evacuation. I was present in the computer centre of my old alma mater when smoke from a bad servo motor in a tape drive triggered a fire alarm in computer room ‘A’. The computer centre was divided into two rooms, each with a large mainframe and associated peripherals and with separate power, cooling and fire protection. Within seconds there were deafening bells, a hurried power down of everything and a lightning fast evacuation. Then we watched and waited. Finally the CO2 went off. It was spectacular, particularly as it went off only in computer room ‘B’. Oh well’ back to the drawing board.

    Then there was halon. Short for halomethane, this family of compounds react with flames to chemically squelch a fire. This allows them to be effective in a flooding environment at concentrations as low as 5% and they can be safely breathed by humans, even computer operators. It seems like a perfect solution but there were some problems. Firstly the small amounts required were stored in high pressure bottles and when released it was almost explosive. I attended a system at a pharmaceutical company just after a fire alarm where the halon was released beneath the raised floor. All the floor tiles had jumped about a metre and landed everywhere. It left a steel support grid about two metres above the concrete sub-floor which would have made it impossible for anyone to move about fighting fires or doing anything else. There was no fire.

    Another problem with the huge pressure change on release is the accompanying temperature drop. This effect is the basis of any air conditioning system but when ice cold halon meets hot running computer power supplies the results can be devastating. I have seen a fine mainframe almost wrecked by this and requiring weeks for repairs.

    Aside from these issues it turns out that releasing halon gives you sunburn. Indirectly admittedly but, like freon, the released halon rises to the stratosphere where it reacts with and destroys the ozone layer (so “they” say). So halon disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

    Do you know what the current preferred fire fighting compound is for computer rooms?  H2O. Yep, water. Sprinklers are easy to install and manage; the water lowers the temperature of any burning compound and quickly puts out a fire. In the mostly low voltage environments of large computers it doesn’t even cause short circuit damage and it turns out that most people power a computer off when they hear a fire alarm, either manually or automatically. Once you dry out the system there is not usually much damage to repair. As an example have you ever dropped your mobile phone in your swimming pool? I have. Open it, leave it in the sun for a day or so and “hey presto” all good usually. Coffee in your keyboard? Try soaking it in your kitchen sink with the dishwashing water and then air dry thoroughly. It often works.

    One last fire related anecdote that still irks me after about 25 years. We had a small system at a major library which also had a Fujitsu system back when they were known as Facom. There was a fire in a nearby room and all the computers were engulfed in thick, acrid smoke all day while the fire was fought and beaten. We spent a week dismantling, cleaning and polishing all the disks and generally washing everything. We were very proud to have restored the system and made thousands in maintenance revenue. Our Japanese friends did not bother. They just wrote off the system and used the insurance payout to sell the library a new one. Several millions in revenue. Bugger.

    I hope you never have to face a fire yourself.

    Mike Sparkes is author of the blog Obscure Aussie and an IT storage expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

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