Hot stuff: COI report breaks down SingTel blaze

Fire was caused by employee who had used an unauthorised blowtorch twice as hot as sanctioned one

[SINGAPORE] The fire at SingTel's Bukit Panjang Exchange in October was caused by a veteran employee who had used an unauthorised blowtorch that was nearly twice as hot as the sanctioned one, in a heating practice deemed "outdated, unnecessary and hazardous" by an independent report.

This was not the employee's first outing with a non-approved blowtorch. The man had done it at least once before, but without incident, the report said. He has been suspended with pay, and SingTel is considering disciplinary action that will be taken.

The report, released yesterday by an independent committee of inquiry (COI), uncovered "shortcomings in fire safety practices that require immediate rectification", its chairman, Bobby Chin, said. "The technical expert has, however, affirmed that the network has a high degree of resiliency. SingTel should continue to build on this."

Mr Chin is also a non-executive and independent director of SingTel and chairman of its risk committee. He was assisted on the COI by two other non-executive and independent directors. Telecommunications consultant Bell Labs as well as fire specialists Octis Technology and JT Megan & Partners were among those who provided expertise for the investigation.

"On the day of the incident, the said worker did not have the SingTel standard-issue blowtorch equipment with him. Instead, he borrowed a non-SingTel blowtorch from a contractor assisting in the cable diversion works," the COI report said.

The unauthorised blowtorch - used on a lead seal on the cable chamber in the exchange - heated up to 800 degrees Celsius, almost twice as hot as the company-issued one, which ran up to 450 degrees Celsius.

The fire came from a concatenation of events - the employee had disabled the fire detection system in order to use the blowtorch, but forgot to turn it back on after. He then left for lunch and the lead seal smouldered unnoticed, becoming a "slow-burning fire". The cable chamber also had no automatic fire suppression system.

When the fire was finally discovered, thick smoke prevented the various employees linked to the exchange from entering the chamber. The Singapore Civil Defence Force had to be called in. In the end, 139 fibre optic cables were burnt, disrupting services for homes and businesses, as well as StarHub's and M1's customers, as two-thirds of those cables belonged to OpenNet.

The report recommends that SingTel stop using "hot works" in cable chambers, install automatic fire suppression systems in cable chambers and switch all lead-based sealants to ones that do not require heating, which are called Multi Cable Transit (MCT) systems.

SingTel began introducing MCT systems more than 20 years ago, but of its 22 exchanges, only eight use solely MCT systems. The Bukit Panjang exchange had a mixture of both MCT and the older lead seals. The fire has brought forward the telco's timeline for upgrading all the lead-based seals to MCT-type ones from an undisclosed date to end-2014.

"The process of conversion takes time to effect. It's not just a matter of conversion. It doesn't mean that just because it's lead- based, it will catch fire. (It's the) first time. It should be a combination of fire prevention (and) fire detection," said Mr Chin.

In the interim, SingTel has also switched to an alternative heating method - a hot air blower without open flame, and put a longer fire watch in place.

SingTel's board has accepted the COI's findings. Its management will implement the recommendations and update the board within three months.

While SingTel did not disclose how much it would all cost, group CEO Chua Sock Koong said: "We have an idea of the cost, but . . . the cost is not the consideration here. We will do what it takes for us to prevent a recurrence of this incident."

In the fire's aftermath, SingTel had a good level of collaboration with OpenNet, the report found, but "there appeared to be low levels of collaboration among operators during the fire when compared to US operators".

The report recommended that SingTel lead industry collaboration so that there could be a "coordinated response" during a major network incident. The telco had several saving graces, with the experts observing "significant strengths in SingTel's people, processes and network infrastructure". It deemed the core network "world-class" and noted that the robustness of its network had kept the fire's impact geographically localised. The report also lauded SingTel's recovery activities, during which the telco repaired 28,000 fibres in two days.

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