Paging IT: Please report to the emergency room stat!

A techie rushes to the emergency room when critical equipment goes down -- and uncovers the most basic problem of all

As tech pros, we know to never, ever overlook the basic root causes for a tech problem. If only we could get users to check the fundamentals before calling us -- especially in the middle of the night. In my 17 years of IT support and management, this particular encounter takes the cake.

I was working at a midsize suburban hospital with a fairly busy emergency department serving a multicounty area. At one point, it had 24/7 on-site IT staffing, but after budget cuts, we were down to three IT staffers, rotating 24/7 on-call shifts every third week. You never knew what to expect; we regularly faced everything from simple password resets to a core switch meltdown and all points in between.

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One Sunday at about 3 a.m., a high-severity page came in from the hospital emergency room. Several computers, monitors, and the prescription printer in a particular area wouldn't turn on. I called back, and the unit's assistant answered. As soon as she found out who was calling, she handed the phone to an angry physician who started yelling about how all the doctors' workstations were down and I "needed to come in immediately!"

Let's do this the hard way

To get a sense of the situation, I tried to ask some basic questions, but he cut me off, told me to get down there now, and hung up. This physician was known for his short temper and his impatience. I called back to talk to someone else, but got the same message. I logged in, but was unable to ping the prescription printer or workstations in the pod.

I got dressed and arrived at the hospital within 30 minutes of getting the call. As I walked into the emergency room, I could easily see it was a busy night and the staff was stressed. I made my way to the workstation area, where the atmosphere crackled with hostility. The doctor I had talked to spied me and immediately berated me for taking so long to arrive.

While I got started, I learned the backstory: The computers had stopped working about an hour before. The staff had tried to power the computers on repeatedly, but nothing. They'd called facility engineering, but the monitors didn't show a circuit problem. That's when they'd called me.

I got to work as quickly as I could. I knew in advance that the doctors' workstations were located in a specific pod, and I couldn't ping the addresses remotely. I checked circuit breakers, then the pod itself. In the meantime, anxious hospital personnel gawked at me and kept asking if it was fixed yet and why it was taking so long.

Power play

Under the desk, I noticed two power strips, but no lights. Peering a little closer, I found that both power strips were plugged into each other -- but not into an electrical outlet. All eyes were still on me, and impatient demands for updates continued to come my way. I didn't say anything, but moved to the side just enough that they could see the power strips.

In front of the angry audience, I disconnected the power strips from each other and plugged them into the electrical outlet. There was silence -- and relief -- as the answer dawned on them. I pushed the power buttons, and like magic, PC and monitor lights came on.

Everything was up and running within 10 minutes of my arrival. The physician and the staff were embarrassed, but very grateful, and the lead EMT sheepishly apologized for dragging me out of bed.

The following Monday, after we had all calmed down, I learned that the housekeeping staff had been in the area cleaning/stripping/waxing the floor. When they were done, the physician and nurses returned to the area and discovered that the computers weren't working, but nobody thought to check to see if they were even plugged in.

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