Protect the Data

Issue 4 and Volume 12.

You may say that America runs on data in many ways. We have discussions about big data, the explosion of data, and information overload and some industry sources have indicated that there are more than one billion Web sites active on the Internet. No matter where you may be, there is the possibility that you may be called on to respond to an emergency in a computer/server room, data center, or even phone switch room run with computers. Computer/server rooms can be found in almost any type of business, schools, medical facilities, government buildings, as well as small, stand-alone phone switch buildings that are in many communities. The critical computer part of the building can be a room, a portion of a room, a phone closet, or perhaps the entire building.


What is in these rooms? Back in the day, computers were big, clunky things that often used magnetic tape reels for data storage. These tape reels were roughly the size of a rotary saw blade, only thicker, or very similar in size to the old reel-to-reel movie tapes that most of today’s younger generations may never have seen. Computer rooms were occupied by the big computers and storage cabinet after storage cabinet of the tape reels. Since then, computers have gotten smaller and more modular, and storage no longer needs to reside on magnetic tape reels. However, power and backup power have become much more important to data and computer room operations. Maintaining proper temperature is also a critical factor in these facilities.

These rooms or buildings will most likely hold racks of server cabinets, with modular components or other equipment in the cabinets. There will also be air-conditioning units in the room, known as a computer room air-conditioner (CRAC) or a computer room air handler (CRAH), possibly attached to a separate compressor or chiller that may be in another room or area or on the roof. Typically, server space temperatures are maintained around 70°F or below. Each piece of computer equipment has its own parameters, but temperatures approaching 80°F or higher can cause overheating and damage to equipment.

Besides temperature, maintaining power to this equipment is also critical. The criticality of the function and information on the servers will determine how long they can withstand a power loss. Most critical server and computer operations will have backup power from emergency generators, which can take a few moments to first detect a power loss and then fire up to restore lost power. More critical systems may have battery backups or an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) that will minimize or perhaps eliminate any loss of power to the computer equipment to ensure that data are not lost or corrupted. Power is also critical to the air-conditioning units, and if they go down for any reason, facilities operations personnel need to be on hand to implement their emergency plans and procedures.


Before we review fire incidents involving the computer rooms and computer equipment themselves, let’s look at a few other situations that can occur with the support equipment.

Power to the computer room is very often supplied by a generator, which would generally be natural gas, propane, or diesel fired. If the generator is on fire, attempt to shut off the gas for gas or propane-fired units. It will prove very useful to know where the gas shutoffs are before the incident occurs, and newer generators may have an emergency shutdown on or near the unit. Carbon dioxide extinguishers can be most useful on fires involving these units, as they will minimize collateral damage. Larger carbon dioxide units are better than small ones. If an extinguisher can’t handle the situation, water or foam lines may be needed.

Carbon dioxide extinguishers can also be used to shut down a diesel engine that is running away or malfunctioning. Simply discharge the carbon dioxide into the air intake for the diesel engine, and it should cause the engine to shut down. Although the overwhelming majority of generators for these areas are at fixed locations, there is a chance that some facilities may use portable generators to provide backup power.

Any fossil-fueled engine will give off carbon monoxide when operating, and it is important that engine exhaust be vented to a safe location outside. Generators run inside a building or run near a building air intake could result in a carbon monoxide emergency in the building.

Another type of backup power is provided by batteries or similar uninterrupted power supplies. Backup batteries can be dry or wet type. Wet-type batteries are typically flooded with sulfuric acid diluted with water. Wet batteries can give off hydrogen gas when charging. The potential can exist for a spill of the battery liquid or a fire involving the electrical equipment. Further discussion of emergencies involving this equipment are included in Ronald R. Spadafora’s article, “Green Energy Threats,” in FireRescue, March 2016 (www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-11/issue-3/firefighting-operations/green-energy-threats.html). If a fire situation involves this equipment, again a carbon dioxide extinguisher may be the best choice here. Take a 15- to 20-pound unit if available.

When the rare fire occurs in the computer facilities themselves, they are often small and electrical in nature. Modern computer equipment may “cocoon” itself and shut itself down when it detects an electrical short, essentially self-extinguishing any fire. Some computer rooms have emergency shutdown buttons in them that will shut down the power to the computer equipment in the room, and often these buttons will shut all the equipment down. It is very important to understand what this will mean before an incident happens and firefighters consider using one of these buttons. Firefighters entering a computer room for a smoke odor or other fire emergency should take a carbon dioxide or other clean agent (one that is nonconductive and leaves no residue) fire extinguisher with them. Although a dry chemical fire extinguisher would extinguish a fire involving this equipment, it will likely cause extensive collateral damage to surrounding equipment.

It is also vital to protect the equipment in these rooms from water or other liquid damage. Liquids spreading into these areas should be diverted using water chutes or catch-alls. Be aware that salvage covers laid over computers to protect them could hold heat in that could damage the equipment. Hazardous material spill equipment can be used to barrage liquids to prevent them from spilling into or around the computer room.


When responding to one of these rooms or facilities, firefighters may encounter a number of different types of fire detection and suppression systems that they need to be familiar with. Detection systems that could be present include the following:

  • Standard smoke or heat detectors. There may be a graphic annunciator panel inside or outside the room that will show which detector is in alarm. A detector may have a blinking light on it that will glow solid red if that is the detector in alarm.
  • Air sampling smoke detection. This may also be known as early-warning smoke detection. This is a system of pipes to sampling points throughout the room that pulls air samples back to a central detection device that can detect fires in a very incipient stage – possibly even overheating wires. This system may not be able to specifically locate where the problem is, and firefighters responding to an activation of this type of system may need to conduct a detailed review of the space with thermal imagers to determine what is causing the system to activate.
  • Other detection or monitoring equipment. These can include temperature monitoring that will trigger an alarm if the room exceeds a set temperature and liquid detection under the floor that will trigger an alarm if any type of liquid is sensed under a raised floor.
  • Detection systems. These may be located above and below raised floors, and firefighters should be aware of how to lift floor tiles to search below these floors. Often these spaces will have tile pullers that will allow tiles to be lifted to search under the floor.
  • Fire suppression systems. Sprinkler systems may be standard wet-pipe systems or could be preaction systems, which are tied to some type of heat or smoke detection that must activate to remotely open the sprinkler valve, flooding the piping that will then permit the system to operate like a standard wet-pipe system. The advantage of the preaction system is that the piping is normally dry, and any physical damage to the piping or sprinklers will not result in an accidental release of water. Another type of fire suppression system that could be present is a clean agent gas system. There are several different types, but most are arranged to require two smoke detectors in the protected space to activate before the system discharges and provide for a countdown (often 30 seconds) from the time the second detector alarms until the gas discharges. Every system may be a bit different, and it is vital that firefighters see how they can operate and understand the “abort” switch on the system and how it works where provided. Some abort switches are a “dead-man” type that must be continuously held down to prevent the gas from accidentally discharging in a false alarm scenario while the alarm panel is being reset. Once the gas begins to discharge, it cannot be stopped, and the gas is typically designed to hold concentration in the space for 10 minutes to allow the gas to “soak” and suppress the fire. Some suppression gases can cause health effects alone or once heated in a fire, which is also crucial to evaluate and understand when preplanning these spaces. Entry into these spaces following a discharge should be done while wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Do not remove SCBA until the space has been fully ventilated.


Computer and data rooms are quite likely somewhere in your district. If something goes wrong, your department will be the one requested to help to deal with the problem. A thermal imaging camera is a vital tool to have available when responding to these occupancies. You will be much more effective when the call comes if you have taken some time to not only understand these rooms or buildings but also get out and see how they are arranged and protected so that you are familiar with what you will be up against.