That orderly shutdown wasn't so orderly

An IT tale of showing the boss the other side of the argument by accidentally demonstrating the emergency scenario

Sometimes, the best way to prove a point is to quit talking and to demonstrate the scenario. Even if it's by accident.

In the 1980s, I was system manager for a defense contractor. We had the classic computer room: three mainframes with multiple attached tape drives, a row of disc packs the size of dishwashers, three line printers, and one high-speed laser printer. We ran three shifts of operators, running production jobs in the evening and backups overnight. It was your basic typical IT environment at that time.

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It also had a Halon fire suppression system.

The IT director had come over from engineering and knew just enough to be a royal pain. One late afternoon, we had a meeting of the computer operators. It was a semi-annual meeting and we'd spent a good portion of it explaining to the boss how the fire suppression system worked: If the system was activated, an alarm would sound, and 30 seconds later the Halon would be released -- none of us wanted to be stuck in the room when that happened.

The boss was big on orderly shutdowns. I never understood why, maybe it was something left over from his engineering days. He kept saying that 30 seconds was more than enough time for an operator to go to each mainframe's console and initiate an orderly shutdown. One mainframe was purely for development, but he insisted that one had to be shut down along with the two production machines, albeit, it could be last. The evening operator said, "If I hear that alarm, I'm heading for the door." The boss insisted that it was part of an operator's duties to start the shutdown before leaving the computer room, no matter what the emergency. The operators reminded him of all the measures we had in place that would keep things humming, regardless of whether or not we performed an orderly shutdown: security and disaster recovery measures, the regular backups, etc. The topic went back and forth between the boss and the rest of us for awhile longer without a resolution, then the meeting moved on.

Since the building had multiple alarm systems, some of which we heard at least once a week, someone asked to hear the alarm that would sound before the Halon triggered. This could be done from the fire suppression system console without releasing the gas. The assistant IT director, who had supervised the construction of the computer room, knew how to do that, so we all crowded into the room while he opened the control box for the suppression system.

A paperclip had been sitting on the top edge of the box. As he opened it, the paperclip dropped into the control box, creating some sort of short circuit, triggering the Halon.

You guessed it: The boss, who was farthest from the door, was the first out. We later added up that he had passed six other people to get out that door.

He never mentioned the incident, and we never heard about his "orderly shutdown in emergency" rule again.