What To Do When Equipment Is Ruined

What To Do When Equipment Is Ruined
A still from video taken by “C.R.” Caillouet documenting the results of a flood in his home, the regular HDVP columnist was hit hard by a severe storm that deluged nearly four decades of his personal video archives. Caillouet urges donations for disaster recovery efforts to Team Rubicon (teamrubiconusa.org) and Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org).

You’re running your first big job as a video pro, and you find yourself up to your waist in water from a flash flood, or grabbing the most important gear from your base camp as a fire races up the hill, or trying to figure out how your favorite camera walked away when you weren’t watching—now what do you do? Catastrophic or criminal events or even simple accidents can bring your production to its knees, but having a backup plan and adequate protection can save your career and/or your company. For those of us working in technical disciplines, Murphy’s Law postulates that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Some failures are natural, some are intentional (theft, vandalism or sabotage, including hacking), but the worst outcomes are results of inadequate preparation for unexpected events. Property, liability, business and production insurance of various types can blunt the effect of unexpected location, transportation or production facility incidents. Regardless, major accidents or catastrophic weather events can totally disrupt a production and potentially scuttle a project. Inadequate insurance coverage can seriously affect your financial stability, and unanticipated downtime can wreak havoc with short-term cash flow, especially for a young operation. Even trying to deal with catastrophic loss during time between jobs can seriously impact your operation, especially if you’re ill prepared.

Myth: Murphy’s Law says…

The effects of poor planning for failure are very real. They can range from a mild bump in your project, through failure to deliver a product, company collapse, injury or loss of life. Perhaps the hardest problems to deal with are those involving natural disasters, some of which can be planned for, with many that just appear literally “out of the blue.” Simple accidents can be avoided through good safety practices and mitigated through maintenance of a complete spares package (when the budget allows), however. Being ready for weather events demands equipment diligence, as well as personal protection, which includes things like camera covers, rain gear, drying supplies and dry clothes.

Once you’ve satisfied yourself, your investors and your clients that you’ve planned to be able to shoot in any event, what do you do when the unthinkable happens? If you’re near support facilities, you may be able to get replacement gear or recovery personnel on site to get you back in business. Don’t fail to notify rental equipment owners and your client of serious problems that might impact the production or shooting schedule. You won’t be a hero if responsible parties hear about your problems on the news or get blindsided by a call from a reporter, and the sooner the rental company knows about your problem, the sooner the support team can take steps to help you recover. It takes a team to respond to disaster.

If you’re out in the field, far from help, there are still some things that you can do to get back to work. Some items are more sensitive than others to apparently damaging events and some conditions are worse than others. Like in medicine, a primary goal should be to “First, do no harm!” Don’t damage the item further by cleaning it roughly, but get it out of any negative environment as soon as possible. Mold and mildew can attack wet gear within 48 to 72 hours and make sensitive parts unusable. Natural, porous and dirty items, like soft cases, may show signs first. Salt water can begin corroding metals immediately so it will need to be neutralized right away. Fresh or, better yet, distilled, water and alcohol can displace dirt, salt or other corrosives. Petroleum product contamination may require mild dishwashing soap to break the oil bonds before the clean water rinse.

Obviously, being caught in a fire makes for a bad day all around. Conversely, short-term exposure to fresh water actually may be fixable. If there’s minimal damage to unpowered electronic equipment, it can be addressed quickly through a clean water wash followed by air-drying in a very low-temperature oven. In some cases, an alcohol bath may help. Mechanical parts may need to be thoroughly degreased and re-lubricated. Rust can be prevented through application of a non-conducting lubricant. However, sensitive items like camera optics and lenses will probably need to be inspected and possibly refurbished by the manufacturer or a qualified service facility, especially as lenses can easily trap condensation where mold can form.

The transition from flexible recording tape and hard drives to solid-state memory has increased robustness to damage, especially for completed segments. If you suspect data loss from damage, or from any equipment malfunction, stop recording immediately. If the recording was interrupted by power loss, you can power up the device and perform any recommended recovery techniques, which will vary by media. Some devices are better than others at protecting your data. If data still appears to be missing, you should eject, write-protect through a disk utility and use data recovery software to copy any recognizable files to a backup drive. Don’t record over the original and get it to a data recovery house if you can’t handle the job yourself. The more you do to the original, the more problems you can cause.

Optical disc recovery results vary with type of media, amount of damage and quality of build. Sometimes, water will damage the back or label side, but careful drying can bring it back. Water intrusion between physical layers can make data irretrievable. In any case, all readable data from damaged media should be copied onto pristine media as soon as practical. You should continue to stabilize damaged media in case you find subtle problems later on. Most cables with no active components (some digital cables contain pre- and/or post-signal processing in the cable connectors) can be washed and/or rinsed and air-dried with few ill effects. Be sure to remove all dirt with various-sized brushes and treat metal retainers with appropriate lubricant to avoid corrosion.

If your equipment is ruined beyond recovery, get on with the process of replacement. If you kept good records of all equipment configurations and copies of all setup files, modern replacement equipment should be up and running quickly. The insurance company may require professional analysis of the damaged goods. Label and protect all suspect equipment, cables and media for later evaluation. Document the sequence that led to the problem as much as possible; this information will be useful for repair, as well as insurance needs. And, of course, take lots of pictures!

You don’t have to be out in the field to experience the terror of the disaster, either; equipment demonstration programs, conferences, festivals and trade shows are notorious for losing expensive cameras and lenses, and small items like laptops, camcorders and action cams are easy targets. Prototypes and rare kit items can offer special challenges for a thief to prove himself. Stay vigilant, and remember that setbacks are always only temporary. HDVP

Charles “C.R.” Caillouet is a technical producer and video engineer who has worked in TV production, from preproduction through field acquisition to postproduction and presentation, as well as for NASA, Sony and Panasonic. He’s currently Technical Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and Science Media Symposium.

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