Conflict of Standards

Reading this entry in the Jargon File reminded me of a funny story about an “unstoppable force meets immovable object” type problem I once encountered.  Due to conflicting regulations regarding safety and security, the following situation was created at a facility I once worked at (and is now closed).

The datacenter was inside a faraday cage because it handled VERY sensitive data.  It was inside a vault because it needed, by design and regulation, to withstand two direct sidewinder missile strikes without compromising the integrity of the data.  All networking had to be fibre-optic to prevent EMF remanence leakage.  It was equipped with a two-hour battery backup (an assload of 24 volt jetski batteries wired to two inverter / rectifier circuits) and a direct line to a 2-minute delay diesel generator.  It also had a halon dump system for fire suppression.  Note that, against reg, this room also had two workstations with desks, chairs, and coffee makers.  Here’s what would go down if there were ever a fire:

  1. AC power is cut.
  2. 2 minute generator delay starts and batteries kick in.
  3. Vault doors seal from both sides.
  4. Halon gas floods the room.
  5. After two minutes, generator kicks in, relieving the batteries.

Now there are two problems with this:  the fire suppression system kills the AC power but doesn’t take note of the batteries, meaning that if the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction, it will more than likely still be happening due to the batteries and generator.  The other problem is that the two unlucky dudes working in that facility (and there were two dudes manning that room during the day and one at night) would be very dead from the halon gas and totally unable to escape due to the blast doors automatically locking when the halon dump happened.  The doors do not unlock until the fire is out, the fresh air vents have opened, and the halon concentration reaches acceptable levels.

I’m really glad I never worked in that office.  They never did have a fire there which is a very good thing.

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  1. #1 by Shawn Mullen on June 9, 2010 - 12:13 PM

    Jason,
    Although you’re no longer working at the facility (which, given the perceptions and system problems noted below, is a good thing), I’d like to offer a couple of observations regarding your recollections of a room protected with halon because myths still persist on how the Halon 1301 agent suppresses fires.

    First, and foremost, Halon 1301 does not deplete oxygen to suppress the fire. It chemically interrupts the chain of combustion. See NFPA 12A Appendix B for more information. Halon was widely used in occupied rooms with high value or mission critical processes. Today we use more environmentally friendly agents. Halon 1301 has been identified as one of the most aggressive depletors of the ozone.

    Secondly, I can understand why the vault doors would close prior to a discharge. However, to say that they lock and would trap persons inside is a clear violation of all fire codes and standards.

    Lastly, the emergency power off (EPO) function was mis-designed if it didn’t also drop the batteries.

    As I noted before, it’s a good thing that you’re no longer subjected to a work environment where the good intentions of a halon protected room were marred by a bad installation.

    Thanks for letting me rant…

    • #2 by Joshua on June 9, 2010 - 3:32 PM

      It’s Joshua, actually. I get called Jason by everyone, including those who’ve met me. And thanks for cluing me into the halon not displacing oxygen thing. I just took the site manager’s word that that’s how it worked. And yes. Yes it was a clear violation. And so was dumping brand new office furniture into a sinkhole / underground river. That’s why that place is closed now. ^_^

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