This article was originally published in the July/August 1996 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online July/August 1996



The Great Presidio Bomb Caper

by Steve Greenberg
Steve Greenberg is Home Energy's technical editor.
I'm Innocent! proclaims Home Energy editor.
Built in 1895 as a barracks, the building had been renovated several times over the century. Come 1994, it was serving as an office building. Deep in its cool basement sat a black briefcase, connected to power, with wires running to electrical panels and the boiler room. From the outside, the briefcase was labeled only with a small sticker: LBL Plant Engineering Instrumentation. Questions or Problems: Dale Sartor x5988.

The Presidio of San Francisco, California, was getting ready to change owners: after being an army base for 219 years, it would soon become the latest addition to the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In preparation for the transition, Dale Sartor, on leave from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (then known as LBL), was the Presidio's interim energy manager in 1993 and 1994.

As part of a community service project, the Bay Area Chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers was working with the Presidio to suggest energy efficiency improvements at their buildings. As part of the project, Sartor and other engineers, myself included, installed data loggers-black briefcases with laptop computers inside-to monitor energy consumption at one of the historic Presidio buildings.

One Year Later ... By the time of the transfer, in October 1994, many of the loggers had been removed, but one remained, quietly monitoring various building loads, including the main electrical service and HVAC gas use. The transfer to National Park Service administration was the occasion for folks from Washington, D.C., to come and give their blessings. On a foggy Thursday, just prior to a visit from high-ranking officials from the Department of Energy and other parts of the Clinton administration, U.S. Park Police were alerted to a suspicious briefcase tucked away in an electrical panel room of the Presidio park headquarters. The building was evacuated, and while about 150 workers waited outside in the fog and wind, the San Francisco bomb squad was called in. The briefcase was nearly detonated.

Fortunately, one officer thought it looked more like a computer than a bomb and bravely opened the case. Inside was my card, connecting me to the in-house energy management team at LBL. Park police attempted to contact me, but I was at the E-Source Forum in Colorado, and people at LBL assumed I was unreachable. Only when I returned the next week did I get the story. Meanwhile the Home Energy staff worried that another ugly chapter was being added to my FBI file.

At last, a Presidio employee remembered Sartor. Park police contacted University of California (U.C.) police, and there was a flurry of activity to track him down. Finally, responding to a page, Sartor was told that there was a bomb at one of his projects and that it was an emergency.

Due to the third-hand nature of the message, details were lacking. When Sartor returned the call, he got a voice mail announcement. Desperate, he called the LBL emergency number, which gave him the Berkeley Lab Fire Department. They knew nothing about the emergency, so they dispatched the U.C. police to the LBL building where Sartor was located-across San Francisco Bay from the Presidio and its terrifying data logger.

Soon, Sartor was in touch with U.C. Officer Raymond Orsolino, who had received the call from the U.S. Park Police. The pieces began to fall into place.

Clearly, data loggers are important to the work of an energy auditor, and it would be unfortunate to have them blown up by well-meaning bomb squads. The data loggers we use are normally inconspicuously placed in mechanical and electrical rooms. Originally, these loggers were used only at LBL, and their labels make sense to LBL employees who might find them. We obviously need more prominent labels on the outside of the cases to prevent people from mistaking them for bombs. But how does one make a convincing this is not a bomb label in today's society, where the line between prudent caution and paranoia is so easily blurred?

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