When Your Computer Catches Fire

Occasionally, I amuse myself by reading Not Always Right. I really shouldn’t, as it’s always bad for my opinion of humanity, but sometimes I just can’t look away. And occasionally, it clues me in to a teachable moment. Like this one, which recently appeared there:

Caller: “My computer is a fire risk.”

Me: “What makes you say that?”

Caller: “It gets hot. There are papers near it.”

Me: “If you’re worried about it, you can move the papers away.”

Caller: “I am moving the papers, but you must send someone to look at it.”

[More back-and-forth, in which caller reiterates that her computer is "a fire risk" and says the situation is urgent. A technician is dispatched, who eventually reports back:]

Technician: “You know that computer that was a fire risk?”

Me: “Yes?”

Technician: “She meant it was on fire.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about such mistakes, either. Rinkworks’ “Computer Stupidities” sub-site has an entire page devoted to instances of computers smoking or catching fire (or people being worried that they might). One in particular involves a tech telling a college student over the phone, “Unplug the computer right now. Your paper is lost. Your floppy drive is lost. If you’re lucky the Mac will be OK. Unplug it now.” The student doggedly insists, “But I don’t want to lose my paper!” Then the tech hears someone in the background (presumably the student’s roommate) scream. Then the dorm fire alarm goes off.

For those who need to be told, I am willing to state, as a computer professional with 15 years of experience in hardware, software, system administration, troubleshooting, and repair:

If your computer or computing device ever emits smoke, sparks, or flame: Unplug it immediately. Do not bother with “proper shutdown procedure”; simply assume all data on it is completely hosed and start emergency fire-prevention procedures. Unplug its power. If it’s a laptop, also yank out its battery. If signs of combustion continue, use a fire extinguisher or water, as appropriate.

Unplugging it means there’s no more electrical power going to it. Many times, that’s enough to kill the combustion right there — if you were quick about it, the fire may go out on its own at this point. If it doesn’t, it is at least no longer an electrical fire. That means if you haven’t got an ABC fire extinguisher handy, you can still just throw water on the thing, without risking electrocution.

Once it’s been smoking or sparking, the device is ruined anyway. Understand that all your data is gone. (This is why it’s important to have complete, current backups.) The important thing to do is to make sure the fire doesn’t spread. Don’t panic, and don’t waste any time trying to shut down carefully or in the usual manner — that will just prolong the fire.

Remember, where computing devices are concerned, if it smokes, it is toast. Or it is fried; pick whichever image works better for you. If you let it keep running once it’s on fire, all you’re doing is putting yourself at risk. Don’t do it.

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