Dec 2021

Fire and Property Loss Prevention in the Telecommunications Industry

The telecommunications industry evolved over the past 20 years from electromechanical to digital to server-based switching systems. Similarly, the telephone company’s central office equipment has significantly changed over the past 20 years. Years ago, there were main distribution frames, various types of switching equipment, etc. Nowadays the equipment is generally high-powered servers in racks, very similar to what you see in a data center.

Telecommunications networks consist of two parts – the network (transmission, switching, access, signaling, mobile and intelligent networks) and business and technical information systems (Operating Support Systems {OSS} and Business Support Systems {BSS}). The older-style telecom equipment still exists at various locations throughout the world. Telecommunications equipment can be viewed as traditional telecom networks and OSS and BSS servers placed in racks similar to what you would see in a data center.

The main hazard associated with telecommunications facilities is damage to sensitive and expensive electronic equipment caused by smoke, liquid from a variety of sources, and natural hazard exposures. Fire-related hazards include energized equipment and cabling (large amounts sometimes), power supply areas (backup generator fuel systems and UPS batteries), and storage of spare cables (plastics) and other combustible materials.

Fire involving energized equipment and cabling will grow slowly, release large amounts of smoke, and cannot be completely extinguished until the power is shut off. Shutting off the power, in particular automatically is problematic.

Power, communications, data, fiber optic cables, and trays/enclosures can be in groups and if combustible can result in large fire size and smoke generation. In older facilities there is power cables are mixed with other types of combustible cables, thereby creating an arrangement in which fire ignition can occur and spread the fire due to the combustible cabling.

Non-combustible material of construction (roofs, walls, cables, containment) should be utilized. The use of combustible construction materials adds to the risk of fire loss. It is not uncommon to see combustible plastics in cables (room, trays, and under raised floors), foam insulation (make-up air ducts and under raised floors) fiber optic routing assemblies, and chilled water piping and distribution units. Noncombustible or FM4910 listed plastics should be used.

The growing use of lithium batteries in UPS & ESS systems presents a fire hazard in which firefighting and extinguishment are technically challenging (see our September 2021 article for more details). Other growing areas in telecoms revolve around 5G. 5G will rely on a new physical architecture with components built on a system of both traditional towers and non-traditional, smaller deployments, such as small cells and microcells—miniature cellular towers that transmit short-range radio signals. In addition to connecting directly to base stations, wireless cellular devices will be able to connect to local small cells, which will then relay data through additional small cells to macrocellular towers.

Some facilities would have obtained certification from Uptime Institute based on their tier classification system. It should be understood that this certification mainly considers site efficiency, availability, redundancy in services, and resilience to downtime.  Protection of data or physical assets is independent of the site infrastructure Tier Classification.

Uptime Institute created the standard Tier Classification System to consistently evaluate various data center facilities in terms of potential site infrastructure performance, or uptime. The Tiers I-IV are progressive; each Tier incorporates the requirements of all the lower Tiers.

Tier Classification System:

The basic protection for telecommunications facilities is either automatic sprinkler protection or non-sprinkler protection such as clean agents (gaseous) or water mist. High sensitivity smoke detection is widely used and recommended. Hot/cold aisle containment systems create shielded areas and need fire protection installed inside most containment systems.

Maintenance of electrical systems is of utmost importance for all types of telecommunication facilities. The main electrical systems that require routine testing and inspection include DRUPS (diesel rotary uninterruptible power supplies), diesel generators, UPS systems, and high voltage DC power stations. N+1 arrangement allows for maintenance to be conducted on tools and most equipment while redundant systems are shut down for “power-off” maintenance operations.

FM Global recommends the following maintenance for electrical systems, as per FM DS 5-19, Switchgear and Circuit Breakers and FM DS 5-20, Electrical Testing

Overall superior administration of management programs is critical to prevent large losses. Risk Logic can recommend and help develop preventive maintenance and property loss control programs at your telecommunications facility. Please contact us to schedule a property survey at your facility by one of our engineering specialists.

References include but are not limited: