Protecting Computers in Quakes Urged by Engineer

Special to The Times: Green is a retired Times staff writer

Even a moderate quake could cause immense havoc by disrupting the computers that are indispensable to nearly all businesses nowadays.

Earthquake engineer Charles Thiel made that point while addressing a conference at the Long Beach Marriott Hotel on designing safe computer facilities.

His talk was underscored by two tremors, in Long Beach and Illinois, that occurred the day before and the day after the conference.

As for protecting equipment, computers in particular, Thiel said building codes are useless, since they are designed to protect people, not property. And they do not apply to hospitals and government buildings.

Put Out of Action

A moderate quake can put a computer out of action without doing appreciable or even noticeable damage to a building, he said. Thiel showed pictures of damage--such as computer disks and reels destroyed by being spilled out of racks and shelves, which were themselves undamaged.

Not only are codes a minimum standard, he said, but they are based on past earthquakes in the vicinity, they are life-safety-oriented and they do not protect against property loss or business interruption.

Among ways of protecting computer equipment is bracing raised floors to keep them from buckling and tipping over mainframes, storage racks and other bulky items. Altering liquid-filled cooling systems so that breaks do not drench delicate equipment, and strengthening electric circuits to minimize fire danger are two others of a long list of measures to mitigate a quake's potential damage.

The conference sponsor, Computer Facilities Services Group Inc. of Cypress and San Diego, designs and builds computer installations to do just that. In fact, the balance of the conference was basically technical discussions aimed mostly at architects, engineers and interior designers.

Loss of Business

Earlier, Thiel said that if your computer is unprotected against an earthquake and your competitor's is not, and a quake knocks yours out for three weeks, when you get back on line your competitor will have 20% of your business; if yours is protected and his isn't, you'll have 20% of his business.

At the recent press conference, Thiel, of Piedmont, Calif., outlined what he called the "four great myths" about earthquakes:

--"They are binary events; if one happens everything goes." In fact, damage in a major quake will probably be no more than 10%, areawide, with 90% of the property unharmed.

--"If it happens to me, it will happen to my competitor." He showed pictures of undamaged buildings in Mexico City standing next to lots filled with the rubble of destroyed structures.

--"I'll be able to improvise my way through the problems when they occur." Totally impossible without advance planning and preparation, he said.

--"There's nothing we can really do." Not true, there is a great deal that we can do.

When it comes to protecting equipment, "We know how to do it and we have devices to do it. They are readily available, easy to install and don't need much upkeep."

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