Sparky Gets Grounded

In this industry, saving the best for last isn’t always possible. Take today for example. I only had one more stop left before I got to go home, and it just had to be the Lyon Flats Hospital parking garage. The hospital itself was serviced by Synthex, but even they won’t touch that graffiti-covered parking garage – and for good reason – the system was a Fezworths Fastboot.

The Fastboot was a classic example of what happens when you give the computer too much power and not enough brain. Right as I was about to wrap up the annual inspection, the little stinker decided to throw me a “map fault” on the first floor. Unlike a ground fault, a map fault is a software issue and is unique to panels that use software-side addressing rather than dials or DIP switches.

Fastboot? More like Crashboot. I hate automapping.

Clearing the fault would require the use of a special Omnimeter peripheral called the GIGA-Finder. After disconnecting the offending SLC loop from the panel, I popped the cartridge into the back of my meter, tied the SLC wires into its terminals, and hit “RUN”.

The isometric grid materialized onscreen, and the “running man” stick figure spawned in. I jogged him around for a bit, jumping from device to device until I found a path that was completely jumbled around.

We call this “fire alarm hopscotch”.

Everything up to device two was fine. But after that nothing made any sense. Those tall blocks represent the elevator control modules, and I was fairly certain that I had found the location of my fault. Device 3, the pull station near the elevator bank.

You can hide, but you can't run!

The area was inaccessible on the virtual map, so I left the meter behind and went to check for myself. I quickly realized the most likely cause of the problem. Somebody had replaced one of these:

With one of these:

Sure, the two types were identical in function. But much like your average basement-dwelling fire alarm enthusiast, Fezworths panels are known to throw tantrums if you don’t get the model number exactly right. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be throwing stones when I live in a glass house…

I disconnected the GIGA-Finder, reconnected SLC Loop 1 to the panel, and rebooted the system. I then plugged the Omnimeter into the panel with the standard jack and scrolled through the panel’s device database.

Sure enough, whoever replaced the pull had failed to update the database to reflect the change in model numbers, causing the automap program to lose track of it and think that everything moved. I selected the correct model number from the drop-down menu tree, made sure everything was consistent, and rebooted once more. No more map fault!

But just to be sure, I checked with the GIGA-Finder one more time. Like any good technician, I like to double-check my work.

Much better!

At long last, it was time for the audible test. If the map fault wasn’t bad enough, the notification appliances were the notorious Fezworths 757 Virtue, one of the few fire alarms whose sound I disliked. Out of spite (and of course, the fact that it needed to be tested), I decided to go for the pull station that had given me trouble.

Time to show you who's boss... Pull down!! Fire alarm, activate!
The diabolical screech of the Virtue signal.

The concrete walls of the parking garage made things even worse, and the sound was echoing like crazy. I definitely should have worn hearing protection. After walking around and listening to several minutes of loud and annoying Virtue signaling, it was finally time to wrap up and head home. By the time I pulled into my driveway, it was already dark. I hate winter.

My house is a little 2-bedroom cottage, built in the 191X’s and not actually made out of glass (that was an idiom). It had all the old-school charm without any of the asbestos or lead paint, thanks to being renovated a few years before I bought it. But for a fire alarm panel who’s designed for commercial buildings, supervising my little houselet can get repetitive.

Sparky, perhaps you should speak with your local authorities about adding an expansion. Your house is somewhat space-deficient.

Just the right size for me, thanks. What's the matter, getting a little circuit bored?

I don't see how a circuit board is relevant to this conversation.

It was a joke. Like "bored". How about some TV?

Television is an outdated medium whose main demographics were old people and the types of people who have regular company. Since I was neither of those, I almost never used it. I’m really starting to question my purchasing decisions.

But Yumi was craving some intellectual stimulation, and her annunciator was in the perfect orientation to face the TV from the front door. It was now only a few minutes past 7 PM, so I said “what the hell” and tuned into the local RMS affiliate for some Enterpri$e!

Earl, thou art but a vacuum salesman... Yet you've been crushing it these past few weeks. At what point did you realize this gig was for you?

Well, Felix... I know every model of vacuum there is to know. With a memory like mine, nobody else stands a chance.

Hmm... We'll see about that, because it's time for the Double-Up round! Amanda, you get to go first...

Earl Ford had made the news a few days ago for his record winnings. Too bad Yumi wasn’t there, or she’d be killing it. She correctly answered all the math questions, from the circumference of the Earth to the relationship between surface area and volume. She didn’t do so well on the current events questions, but overall was able to answer about a third of the questions on the crossword puzzle. Maybe I’ll sign her up to appear on the show.

Thanks, Sparky. But I'm not very good. If you took the spins into account, I would have exactly three thousand, five hundred dollars, between second and third place.

See how quick you calculated that? Keep practicing and you'll get there. If not, there's always the IFPA Expo. Ashton thinks you'd make a great exhibit!

I should be flattered, but being an exhibit requires very little skill on my part.

Yeah, I was giving you a hard time. Like it doesn't take a genius to join the fire alarm circus... Anyway, I'm beat. Good night, Yumi.

I guess you don’t need aspirating smoke detectors to be a fire alarm panel with aspirations. But something had been bothering me. Yumi had a decent grasp on emotions, but didn’t seem to get any of my jokes. Typically, people would understand them, and just not find them funny. I told myself I’d deal with it in the morning and tucked myself into my oversized bed.

Morning came a bit sooner than I had hoped. I woke up at 3 AM to the sound of RiteAlerts in code 3. I bolted out of bed, wiped the sparky sands from my eyes, and checked the annunciator in the hallway.



The workshop was in the basement, where Yumi’s central control panel was located. I made a mad dash down the stairs, fearing the worst had happened and I lost everything. But much to my relief, there was clearly no fire – just a tripped detector with its LEDs lit. Acknowledge, silence, reset.

When Yumi came to, she wasn’t happy. She’d been pestering me to clean that detector for the past couple days, but I had just been so busy that I’d neglected to do it.

What happened, Yumi? Aren't you supposed to ignore the dirty ones?

I don't know, but I have a wicked headache. Ugh...  This is what I get for trying to protect you.

How can a computer get a headache? Not that it matters... I'm just glad you're okay. I'm really sorry!

Sorry isn't going to make it go away, Sparky. Just clean my detector and leave me alone.

Okay, geez. Go take some iBuprofin or aspirin.exe or something, crankball.

I twisted the detector off its base and brought it over to my workbench to take apart (the only surefire way to know they’re really clean). When I popped the outer cover off and immediately realized what the problem was – a funnel weaver spider had set up shop in the chamber. The sudden peak in activity was enough to spook Yumi.

That thing was inside of me? I feel so... violated!

Meh, no big deal. Think of it like a tiny little kitty cat.

How would you feel if it crawled up your nasal passages and stayed there?

Great! Then I could finally get rid of all the flies.

There are flies living in your nasal passages? Humans are even weirder than I thought.

It was just a joke. How come you never find any of my jokes funny?

I was programmed to protect life and property, not to measure what's funny.

I tried my best to get back to sleep, but my mind was racing with ideas, like how I should leave the TV on when I’m gone so Yumi could learn more about the outside world. And how that would also make the building seem occupied so industry spies didn’t break in.

After about an hour of tossing and turning like this, the birds were starting to chirp. There was absolutely no hope that I would get back to sleep. No work in the morning, either. Screw it! We were going to watch a comedy movie so I could get this sense-of-humor stuff sorted out. After all, nobody likes a fire alarm panel with a bad bedside manner (I’m looking at you, Fezworths).

We went back and forth between a few options before ultimately deciding on Grain Man. It was a 90’s movie in which Ryland Grainer, a non-verbal man, learns to farm wheat to earn a living. He ends up striking it rich with a new pest-resistant cultivar but nearly gets his creation stolen. It was supposed to be a drama, but it had plenty of funny moments, too.

However, regardless of whatever wild tomfoolery Grainer got himself into, Yumi wasn’t laughing one bit. Instead, she was taking everything literally, and chirping in every five seconds to complain about how unsafe the characters’ actions were. The deficit was more serious than I thought.

My IQ is about 120, which is on-par with the average electrician. If measured in human terms, hers is 150, or the IQ of the average electrician according to electricians. But having high intelligence didn’t mean she’d be relate to other people, any more than it did for the titular Grain Man when he walked in on hanky-panky at the patent office and just stood there as if nothing was going on.

I guess I’d have to explain humor to her myself. Humor came in different categories, and some types were better than others. This was mostly situational humor, where people get caught in ironic or embarrassing moments. But there were other types, like jokes, which are short anecdotes that end in a humorous “punchline”. Then there were puns, which were easy to come up with but are often considered the weakest form of humor.

Are you trying to say "pawn"? Is it analogous to the weakest chess piece?

No. A pun is a wordplay. For example, you're a 4007ME. I added "You", to "ME", to make "Yumi". Your name is a pun!


Wait... Is that sarcasm?!

I don't know, Sparky. Does it sound like I'm being sarcastic to you? Maybe there's something wrong with your programming.

Incredible. I’ve done it again. One day the world will tremble in awe at the sheer genius of Sparky Sands. And I shall hereby declare Friday nights to be movie nights with my fire alarm panel! Hashtag firealarmfriday.

As the Sun started coming out, the hunger pangs hit. I put a bowl of super-spicy ramen noodles in the microwave and started watching fire alarm videos in the meantime. It takes a lot of sifting to find good ones, because little kids are always uploading weird videos of pretend paper fire alarms from their mom’s cell phone. But then, I stumbled upon this:

Urban spelunking at Almsridge Psychiatric Hospital - Hazard City, PA - Alarm goes off!

Coincidentally, Almsridge was just a couple miles away from here. It’s sat abandoned for decades, and judging by the comments on the video, was the subject of local rumors about mind control experiments, demonic possession, and secret societies.

But I didn’t care about any of that. It was all BS anyway. I was just watching to see vintage fire alarms in action. I was quite disappointed when it was the security alarm, not the fire alarm, that went off. But it wasn’t a total loss, since something else caught my eye.

As the cameraman fled out the front entrance, you could catch a glimpse of something truly spectacular – a Synthex 2120!

The 2120 was the first addressable panel, and came out in the late 80’s. It looked almost like an old calculator, but was as tall as a man. According to the Fire Alarm Bulletin, there were only three known to be operational in the whole country. Which meant that your old pal Sparky just struck red gold. Buried treasure. Fire alarms, that is.

I lapped up my ramen like there was no tomorrow, climbed upstairs two steps at a time, and put on some comfortable clothing for the occasion. As I headed out the door, Yumi stopped me in my tracks.

And where do you think you're going, mister?

I'm just going out. Is there a problem?

Let's see... You look like Ryland Grainer raiding the Svalbard Seed Vault. You're about to do something illegal.

What gives? You're a fire alarm, not a burglar alarm.

I'm a life safety device. My job is to protect your life. You're not leaving until you promise me you're not going to do anything dangerous.

Thanks for your concern. See ya!

Gosh… It’s like she was my mom or something. Lucky for me, there’s not much you can do to stop me when you’re an electronic device mounted on the wall.

I quickly realized that using the company van for fire alarm archaeology would be a big no-no, so I just grabbed the dolly and took off in the Sparkymobile. Okay, I never call it that, but I’m going to start now. It’s a metallic blue 2012 Volvox 40S sedan, and it’s been my car for a long time. It’s got leather seats, butt warmers, and even a moonroof. It’s a pretty sweet ride if you ask me.

The drive was about fifteen minutes from my house. When I pulled into the cracked and weed-infested driveway, I made sure to park behind one of the overgrown hedges to ensure no cops could see my car as they drove by. This was important for one particular reason:

Wonder what they’re doing with the place…

The exterior resembled a sprawling mansion. It was all white, with gigantic pillars at the main entrance. Most of the windows were boarded up, and the molding was collapsing on the side doors. Ivy was everywhere.

It almost looked like the White House, except falling apart externally rather than internally (ba-dum-tss). In fact, the interior was in surprisingly good condition. It was hard to believe this place was shuttered a full twenty years ago.

The 2120 was still right there at the entrance, and I came prepared with my tools. But I wasn’t ready for it yet. The panel wasn’t currently operational, but power might’ve still been flowing to it. I couldn’t afford to take any chances. I’d have to open it up and check for power with my Omnimeter.

Dammit! My Omnimeter! I got so excited that I forgot to bring it. I'm such an obsessed idiot.

That meant I had to actually find the electrical room and make sure that the breaker was shut off. I began looking around, and turned on my big boy flashlight to cut through the eerie darkness of the boarded-up building. I took note of the various old Synthex fire alarms. The devices here were exactly what you’d expect to find on a Synthex 2120 system.

These key-only stations were quite rare. Opening the station releases the button and sets off the alarm, but I wasn’t about to try it out.

“Baseball” style ionization smoke detectors.

Of all the devices here, these were my favorite – the speaker version of the 2903. Fire alarm speakers like these broadcast audio from a central amplifier. I wonder what voice message this system used.

As I delved further into the abandoned mental hospital, my focus began to shift from the fire alarms to the treatment facilities themselves.

The first thing that I noticed was that there were extremely long clothing racks lined to the brim with nothing but straightjackets. Was that all these patients ever wore? Something about this place was making me want to turn on the lights. But like the pull stations, the light switches were key-operated, and not the simple kind you see in schools, either.

The hallways were unusually wide and spacious, not at all like what you see in movies. The walls became progressively more graffiti-covered as I ventured deeper into the abandoned building.

As I moved to yet another section of the hospital, I nearly fell into a depression… in the floor. It was a bathtub, but in a place where one probably shouldn’t be – right in the middle of a shared bedroom. Now this place was really starting to show its age. I wondered if the original purpose of these was for the dangerous and cruel practice of ice baths.

The real kicker was the surgery room. In place of an operating table was an almost cross-like restraint, with an extremely bright-looking lamp overhead. Next to this contraption was a tray of medieval-looking surgical instruments that might be worth money – not that I would even think about touching them. Anything that’s ever been shoved into the eyesocket to rasp at brain tissue was a potential risk for contracting a fatal prion disease.

Another not-so-lovely antique was a machine that was undoubtedly used for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This was definitely worth money, but I had to keep my eyes on the prize.

All this, yet no signs of anesthetic anywhere. Oh, the lengths I'll go to just for rare fire alarms...

In the cafeteria were a bunch of wheelchairs. I extrapolated that many of the patients were so heavily drugged that they could barely move and had to be spoon-fed. The place was really starting to mess with me, and I swear I could see lights flicker out of the corner of my eye.

I decided to take a break before I lost any more of my sanity, and thought I’d go for a spin in one of the wheelchairs. That proved to be a bad idea, and I nearly sat in dried feces. Or perhaps it was blood, since there was a cattle prod on the ground covered in seemingly the same substance. I cringed once I realized it appeared to be both.

Alright, that's enough! I gotta get out of here.

But then, there it was, in the opposite corner of the room – a door marked “ELECTRICAL CLOSET”. Hallelujah!

But of course it had to be the only locked room in the building, and I wasn’t about to go looking for the key once I started reading some of the graffiti (rather than simply dismissing it as a mere consequence of an idle building). One tag indicated that the notorious “2-Gang Street Gang wuz here”. That would normally worry me. Just a bit, since they were said to carry machetes.

But even though they’d probably slice me like bologna if they found me here, it wasn’t them I was afraid of. What really scared me was whoever was fearless (or clueless) enough to disrespect them by crossing out their tag and drawing over it with this:

It's that symbol!

The symbol, called the Web of Knowledge, or Enlightenment or something like that, could be found all over the city (including the parking garage!) and had some association with conspiracy theories. This was the first time I’d seen it accompanied by writing.

I promised myself I’d do more research on this matter, but first I had to focus on getting out of here with my mental faculties still intact. Which they probably weren’t, because I’m pretty sure I just heard someone calling my name.

I retraced my steps and hurried back toward the main entrance. Escape was just a few yards away. I could even see my car, gleaming brightly on this unusually sunny January morning. But I wasn’t about to let this whole trip be a waste of time, sunk-cost fallacy be damned.

In a split-second decision, I pulled out my β-key, opened the glass cabinet of the 2120, and popped off the dress panel. I then took my screwdriver and went straight for that transformer, being extremely careful to avoid any accidental shock therapy. Just one slip, and I could—

(To be continued…)