What to do in the First 24 Hours

for Damaged Electronic Equipment and Magnetic Media

This memorandum addresses the emergency steps to be taken after a disaster has occurred to electronic equipment and magnetic data storage media. The plan considers fire, heat, smoke, and water damage, and is designed to limit and mitigate potential losses. The equipment under discussion includes office computers, word processors, telephone switching equipment, test equipment, process equipment, and other electrical and electronic apparatus.


It is important that power be disconnected from all equipment immediately! Not only is there a danger to personnel working in the area and a danger of fire from electrical shorts, but electrochemical action can plat contaminants onto printed circuit boards and associated connectors and backplanes. This action can also remove metals. Once metal is removed, the board is not restorable.

Fire Damage

Equipment which has suffered thermal damage as evidenced by cosmetic aberrations in plastic components may not be restored. Besides heat, a fire generates combustion by-products. These by-products are locked into the soot, which condenses on all cool surfaces. Smoke exposure during the fire for a relatively short time does little damage, but the particulate deposited contains active corrosive components. These components, in the presence of humidity and oxygen, will corrode metal surfaces. Irreversible damage can occur in the time period of a few days.

The ultimate objective of restoration is to remove the contaminants. All of the equipment cannot be cleaned simultaneously, so it is important that immediate steps be taken to arrest the corrosion process. The most important step is to control the humidity! Corrosion occurs very slowly if the relative humidity is below 50%. This fact leads us to the first set of response actions:

Once the corrosion process is stabilized, the appropriate cleaning protocol can be designed and applied by a professional restoration organization.

Water Damage

It is a popular misconception that electronics exposed to water are permanently damaged. Water which has sprayed, splashed or dripped onto electronic equipment can be easily removed. Even equipment which has been totally submerged can be restored. The most important issue in the amount of damage is whether the equipment was powered at the time of exposure. As in the case of fire created corrosives, immediate countermeasures are imperative!


Magnetic Media

The most important asset which must be preserved after a disaster is the critical data on magnetic media. Media which has been exposed to contaminants should be examined by a professional before any attempt is made to use them. Removable hard disk platters exposed often have particulate matter on the surface. Severe damage to disk read/write heads is probable if an attempt is made to operate with media which is not clean. A head crash caused by particulate on the surface of the hard disk media will not only damage the drive, but will also cause loss of data. If an attempt is made to use a floppy disk with hard particulate matter on the surface, damage to the oxide layer may destroy data as the floppy spins. Water can dissolve the adhesive between the substrate and the magnetic oxide coating resulting in loss of data. Tapes must be dry and clean before any attempt is made to copy the data. Hard disk data can be partially saved--even after a head crash. Contaminated media is replaced with clean media. Restoration of data is a process involving the emergency cleaning of the media so that data may be copied onto other media. The original media will be discarded or archived.