The office is on fire -- get the IT guy!

Techies often talk about putting out the fires behind the scenes, but not usually as literally as on this IT call

As an IT pro, what keeps me up at night is worrying about critical projects that absolutely cannot have downtime, where one mistake affects a large group of people. But who notices if all things IT are running smoothly? It won't make the front page, so thank goodness for friends and family who at least pretend to show an interest when we explain how we yet again saved the day.

But this is the real world, and emergencies are nearly inevitable. Though you may not wish for the blame to fall on other departments or workers, it can be a relief when IT is not the cause -- and gets the credit for our quick actions.

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I happened to be at the right place at the right time for a consulting gig with a small-business customer. I have a regular IT job, but I also take on-the-side assignments, where I handle a range of tasks, from IT to more tech-oriented duties such as repairing hardware or laying cables.

One day I was onsite at one of these customer locations: a small company with around 10 employees. About a month before, I had helped them move their networking equipment and servers to a new location. On this particular day, I was there to help with check-printing issues plaguing their accounting person.

For some strange reason, the printed checks didn't look right. I downloaded and installed the latest driver for the newly bought printer in question, but the format appeared off. I printed a test Microsoft Word document and no problem -- the printed output was just like the preview. But when the checks went through the printer, the output didn't match the preview.

I tried all of the driver versions for the printer, but the checks still weren't up to par. I decided to revert all the settings on the printer to the factory default and see if that made any difference -- it didn't. They didn't work on another printer, either.

If it's not one emergency, it's another

While scratching my head over the problem, somebody nearby screamed, "Fire!" I looked up and saw smoke rising from two cubicles away. The fire extinguisher was mounted on the wall by me, so I grabbed it and ran over. I doused it easily with the extinguisher, relieved that the fire was still small, despite all the smoke. Luckily, the fire wasn't big enough to trigger the sprinkler system.

I made sure the fire was totally out and noticed it burned only a limited section, damaging part of the cubicle wall and desk. From what I could tell, it seemed to be an electrical fire within the cubicle partitions. Meanwhile, alarms were ringing and employees were evacuating.

The fire department found that the fire had knocked out the power to nearly all the cubicles. When the firefighters turned the tripped breaker back on, it started smoking in the cubicle again. They told us to keep the power off and have an electrician inspect the panel and circuits immediately.

Though I knew my actions hadn't caused the fire, their statement came as a relief. I thought to myself, "Good thing I wasn't the one who installed their electrical wiring; I had only pulled in their network cabling. Phew!"

As there was no power, I was unable to continue troubleshooting the check printing issue, so I told them to call me when the electricity returned.

Mysteries unraveled

They called me three days later. I asked them what the electrician had found. They'd been told the fire was caused by an overloaded circuit and the use of a (not allowed) space heater that wasn't plugged in correctly, causing an arc that then started the fire. Now, in addition to my work on the checks, I was asked to pull in new network cables to the affected cubicle.

Both tasks proceeded smoothly, and I eventually solved the check mystery. It turned out the check-signing unit had been installed inline with the printer, but it required an older printer driver to work properly. After another hour of trial and error, I found a printer driver that cooperated with the check-signing unit and the printer.

Having been a hardware repair tech in a previous life, I've seen smoke rising from computer equipment -- power supplies, CRTs, printers, and more -- but this was the first time the smoke gave way to flames. In IT, we talk about "putting out the fire." In this case, I literally did so for the company and metaphorically for the accounting department.

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This story, "The office is on fire -- get the IT guy!," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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