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Recovering from a catastrophe

Damage to equipment from unwanted contaminants in the water can be repairable if the power is shut off immediately. This helps to avoid further damage from the operating voltages, which could completely destroy the equipment.

It's bad enough trying to make everything work again when a routine component failure occurs. In a more serious repair problem, the facility has suffered from a fire or, as along the Gulf Coast this year, one or more hurricanes with accompanying wind and water damage. While these two situations would seem to be totally different, the repairs have a certain amount of similarity.

Extinguishing the flames

If the flames actually are around the equipment, it probably is destroyed. It's then necessary to order new pieces. What becomes a more difficult situation is when the equipment is not directly exposed to the fire but simply finds itself in an environment that causes harm. That environment includes both smoke damage and the results of extinguishing the flames.

One problem with transmitter site fires is that the sites are usually unmanned. Good fire and smoke sensors with an extinguishing system are an absolute must.

The most desirable solution is a Halon system. In a complete system, the power would be shut off at the main breaker with a shunt trip, the building air vents would be closed, and the building would be filled with Halon in a gaseous form.

However, Halon poses a problem. Halon rises in the air and ultimately attacks the ozone layer. As a result, it is now illegal to manufacture Halon in the United States. On the other hand, there is no good way to get rid of the existing Halon.

So far, the solution has been to recondition existing Halon by cleaning it both physically and chemically. Then, the leftover Halon can be reused in fire extinguisher systems. While it is illegal to manufacture Halon, the Federal Aviation Administration urges the use of Halon systems for aircraft. This results in an interesting dilemma. One government agency says you can't make the stuff, while another urges its use.

Halon simply creates an atmosphere where nothing will burn without an additional stimulus. In low concentrations, it isn't harmful to people, but for numerous reasons, one should leave the building. Besides the Halon, fires in electrical equipment generate gases that can be extremely harmful, if not fatal. If members of the station staff happen to be in the area when the system fires, they should leave, making sure the doors are closed, and call the fire department. After the fire is totally out, the building can be vented and systems brought back online.

A major problem with fires is that well-meaning staff or firemen spray everything with dry powder fire extinguishers. While good at putting out the fire, the compound used in those extinguishers is harmful to equipment. The material combines with the copper on circuit boards and connectors as well as some other metals. The plating on tape paths is destroyed, with only the base metal remaining. Bearings in motors or tape decks are damaged. The general corrosion of the copper starts immediately.

As an absolute rule, no dry powder extinguishers should be allowed anywhere near the station. In addition, visit the local fire department and request that it does not use dry chemicals if it is called to the site.

For the station, if a complete, fixed Halon system cannot be installed, portable extinguishers are available with Halon in a liquid form. It should be sprayed at the base of the flames until the fire is out. Obviously, the power should be turned off to eliminate the cause of the fire or to reduce the probability of the fire rekindling.

If a dry chemical has been applied, the equipment should be treated as soon as possible by an experienced cleaning service that has the necessary solvents to stop the effects of the chemicals.

Proper cleaning can greatly reduce the bad effects of the chemical extinguishers. In one case, a studio full of high-end cameras was badly exposed to smoke and the dust from dry chemicals used to put out the fire. The cameras were cleaned by a professional service, but the station was worried that the cameras wouldn't be reliable, so they were sold to another local station. The cameras ended up providing years of reliable service, with no more than usual routine maintenance needed. The continued good performance of those cleaned cameras changed many minds, including mine, about the ability to clean electronics equipment.

Water damage control

The other big problem is water damage resulting from major storms. This includes salt water flooding from hurricanes and the loss of building roofs due to tornadoes.

For equipment that has been immersed in salt water filled with sand, mud and chemicals, in most cases, the obvious solution is replacement. It isn't just the salt water; that can be cleaned up. The problem is all the crud that gets carried in at the same time, in addition to the inability to get the equipment cleaned quickly.

Exposure to rain isn't necessarily a problem. Pure rainwater is essentially cleaner than the best quality tap water. Unfortunately, the rainwater gets filtered through dirt on the roof, in the attic, on top of the racks, etc. The result is that the equipment is exposed to all sorts of unwanted contaminants. The damage will probably be repairable if the power is shut off quickly to avoid damage from the operating voltages.

The repairs, if no mechanical or electrical damage occurs, usually involve cleaning by a professional service. However, simple fresh water exposure is usually treatable by the station staff.

Cleaning house

Contacting the station's insurance carrier immediately is a good idea. The carrier will help to get professional cleaners in as soon as possible. Getting the corrosive materials out of the equipment works best if done before extensive corrosion occurs.

Engines, as in the standby power plant, can be returned to service with minimal problems. Engine service facilities, especially on the coasts, are experienced in dealing with total immersion when boats sink. The repairs normally involve lots of flushing with various solvents and running the engine for short periods with oil changes between those periods. All electrical systems, not just the electronics equipment, need a thorough cleaning, lubricating, recalibrating, etc. As a rule, motors should be serviced by a good service facility.

Getting back on-air

The one remaining problem normally found with major damage is that the stations cannot return to the air immediately.

The one good experience that the staff will have is in dealing with manufacturers to get replacement equipment to the station. Generally, manufacturers will bend over backwards to help get stations back on the air. That may include using equipment from their lab and diverting deliveries for other stations where delays won't cause those stations to be off the air. The broadcast industry, especially on the technical side, generally pulls together in major calamities.

Don Markley is president of D.L. Markley and Associates.

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