Techie finds himself telling caller there is no safe depth of water for operating computers

999, what is your emergency?... Oh sh-

Plug sockets under water

On Call The weekend is approaching, dear readers, but before we get there, our weekly column of tech support drama beckons.

And this week's On Call is certainly dramatic as "Brandon" tells us about a tense phone call with a user who was, quite literally, in at the deep end.

"It was a dark and stormy night," Brandon began, with just a hint of melodrama. "Well, it was dark at the very least."

Our tech support chap was on call one night in the early '90s when he received a "999" pager code.

"Even though the severity level was scalable, calls late at night always seemed very urgent to the lonely souls toiling in the white-noise of the data centres," he said.

So Brandon had this in mind when he called the number back, and ended up speaking to a woman who sounded "quite panicked".

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Down the phone line he could hear "the unmistakable roar of air rushing loudly, as was typical when you call into a data centre" – but there was something else he couldn't place.

"What depth of water can the computer operate in? How deep does it get before I have to shut it off?" asked the caller, with some urgency.

To which Brandon immediately and incredulously replied: "There is no depth of water that is safe to operate the computer!"

This was followed by a few moments that remain all too fresh in his mind, even to this day.

"I heard the sound of the black-corded telephone drop on the hard melamine desktop, and then a slosh, slosh, slosh," he told us.

"I realised the sloshing noise was the panicked computer operator wading through water in the data centre to kill the high-voltage power on the computer."

The power switch, of course, was close to the floor, and Brandon, trapped on the other end of the line, was left shouting "Stop. STOP. STOP!" into the phone.

"It was fruitless as the white noise drowned me out," he said. "The slosh, slosh, slosh, grew quieter as she neared the machine."

Having been in that data centre many times, Brandon could picture the path she was taking to the computer, which was quite a long way from the operator's desk – so he waited, listening, and hoping for the best.

"After what seemed to be an eternity, I heard a slosh, slosh, slosh getting closer to the phone," Brandon said.

"I could hear a man's voice, and my heart sunk – but then the perky voice of the operator came through: 'It's off now, all good! Too bad about that payroll run, though.'"

Apparently, the cooling system had burst a pipe and the data centre was filling up with water. "Luckily I had some rubber boots in the car!" the caller added.

After regaining his composure, our frazzled Brandon told her to leave the data centre immediately, find a phone that wasn't in a room filling with water and call back.

"I will never forget this call," Brandon told El Reg. "It taught me to always ask for more information before blurting out the seemingly obvious answer to what seems like an inane question."

Have you ever accidentally sent a colleague into a very risky situation – but had it all turn out all right in the end? Tell On Call, and we might feature your story next time. ®

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