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Volume 27, Issue 3

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HP’s Investments in Seismic Protection Minimize Losses and Damage

Two weeks after the Bay Area earthquake, employees who work at Hewlett Packard’s Corporate Headquarters building still had plenty of reminders of what happened at 5:04 on Tuesday, October 17. They could stare at the ceiling and see that at least half of the acoustical tiles were missing. While climbing the stairs in their building, they pass by walls with cracks and peeled paint and a series of reassuring notes that explain that this damage is not structural. Damage to paint and sheetrock was caused by leakage from snapped water pipes above almost all the water heaters in the restrooms. From now on, water heaters everywhere in the building will be braced.

Most of the damage to Corporate Headquarters was cosmetic. There were no injuries, and the critical business functions housed in this building were saved from more serious consequences by careful disaster planning and earthquake preparedness measures and nearly a million dollars worth of special seismic protection. The telecommunications systems never failed, and all of the HP 3000s in the Corporate Data Center are back in operation after an Emergency Power Off (EPO). The Worldwide Order Processing center operated with a skeleton crew on Tuesday night, and by 4 a.m. Wednesday morning they had completed processing Tuesday’s orders only one hour behind schedule.

Just about the time the day’s orders were completed, Wall Street began calling next morning, and members of HP’s public relations were on hand to report that the core of HP’s business had not been impacted.

Ray Schwartz, Section Manager in Corporate Computing & Services at HP, has a cubicle a few yards away from the computing center. He was familiar with HP’s prioritized list of what to do in an emergency because he was on the disaster planning committe that formulated it: first make sure the people are safe, then tend to the gas and water, protect the telecommunications equipment, and last of all, see to the computers.

When the quake hit, he went to the computer room to make sure that everyone was evacuated and that no one was injured. Schwartz ordered the EPO twenty minutes after the quake. A controlled power down would have saved wear and tear on computers, but it would have taken longer and therefore put people at risk during aftershocks. Once the power was off in the computer room, it was time to contain the leaks. Then large fans were brought in to keep the telecommunications wires cooled until power to the air-conditioning equipment could be restored.

Only two months before the quake, HP had installed a threaded rod suspension system for reel-to-reel tape racks. The system was designed to swing when the building swayed. Tapes in the 50,000 reel collection swung back and forth during the quake but stayed on the racks. Although the force of the trembler bent almost every rod suspended from the tape vault’s ceiling, none broke.

Two employees were working in the tape vault and neither of them wAS injured. Without the suspension system they would have been hit by a barrage of tapes. Many of the cartridge tapes for HP’s IBM and Amdahl mainframes fell out of their slots. Although these tapes were not heavy enough to cause serious injury when they fall out, HP will replace its cartridge tape racks with new ones that have a small protective lip.

Just outside the computer room, two tape racks fell over and the force of the flying tapes damaged a nearby disc drive. Several other Bay Area divisions had fallen tape racks. Bob Lanning, earthquake preparedness program manager, had just received quotes for more new supported tape racks just before the quake hit. According to Schwarz, these threaded rod tape racks will become a standard earthquake safety precaution. The rod suspension system proved to be superior to the bracing method which HP had been considering. When a braced rack was tested on a shake table at Stanford University, the rack stayed in place but the tapes flew out.

HP had spent $750,000 to replace the raised floor in its main computer room at Corporate Headquarters in Palo Alto with the special seismic flooring. This building, opened in 1981, had state-of-the-art raised flooring reinforced by structured steel. Nevertheless, Schwarz and other members of the disaster preparedness team noted that a floor similar to this one had collapsed during the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. Top management had approved this expenditure to protect the company’s critical business functions.

By March, 1988, the new floor was in in place. This floor had a heavy cast aluminum underside, and the pillars that supported the raised floor were almost twice as thick as the ones on the floor that was replaced. The previous floor was secured with epoxy, but this floor was held by both bolts and epoxy.

Much of the earthquake damage done to equipment in computer rooms with the conventional raised floors comes when equipment on casters or pads bounces around on the floor and fall into the holes for cabling. The seismic floor has protection around each of the holes so that casters can’t fall into them. As a result of the new floor, no equipment tipped over in the Corporate Computing Center although each piece moved and some of the pieces turned as much as 45 degrees.

The computer room contained 60 HP 3000s, several mainframes and many peripherals. All but three of the minicomputers were ready to run when they were powered up again, and a day later all of them were working. None of the floors in HP’s other computer rooms collapsed in the earthquake. Nevertheless, many machines moved around and at least one HP division has reported that a computer was knocked over into the holes for cabling. It is possible to retrofit a conventional raised floor by adding a metal lip around the holes, and this work is already under way for computer rooms at other Bay Area sites.

The corporate Headquarters reopened on Thursday when power was restored, but four HP sites, including two leased sites, needed structural repairs before they could reopen.

HP’s Earthquake Preparedness group had done seismic evaluations on all of its Bay Area sites. One of the buildings that got a poor seismic rating was the leased site in San Jose that housed the Personal Computer Distribution Operation (PCDO).

Another earthquake preparedness measure HP had taken was to pay a retainer to a team of structural engineers so that HP would be first in line for structural repairs after the quake. The following day, the engineers were on site at PCDO to evaluate the damage and present a plan for bracing the building’s pillars with big belts. The city building inspectors approved the plan, engineers and contractors worked all weekend, and the building reopened the following Monday.

Other HP buildings damaged by the quake included a leased building that housed the company’s television studios and, ironically, its Health and Environmental Safety office in Palo Alto. The studio and offices will locate in temporary quarters. An employee cafeteria in Santa Clara was closed because damage to the ceiling tiles expoused asbestos. The structure will be completely remodeled before it opens.

The worst structural damage was suffered to Building 26, a building which had been constructed around a previously existing building on a hillside outside Palo Alto. The ten-year-old building which houses Corporate Engineering and a prototype semi-conductor fabrication facility was built with braced frame construction that was designed to be seismically sound. Nevertheless, the inner frame of the building bent. The structure shook violently, especially on the upper floor, causing much damage to computers, monitors, semiconductor processing equipment, accoustical ceilings and partitions. Because of HP’s stringent safety precautions, none of the chemicals used in semiconductor processing spilled during the quake.

Unlike some other electronics companies that suffered damages from the earthquake, Hewlett-Packard intends to let the public know how it was affected by the quake so that other institutions and households can learn how to prepare for earthquakes yet to come. HP and fourteen other large companies in Santa Clara County had formed the Peninsula Roundtable for Earthquake Preparedness (PREP) to pool their resources and share with one another the most effective ways to protect workplaces from earthquake damage. HP was among the fortunate few who had begun to implement their preparedness plans.


Written by Peggy King, Hewlett-Packard

This article adapted from Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 31.

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