SingTel fire sparked by staff who forgot to reset alarm

The telco has outlined a slew of safeguards in response to safety shortcomings and outdated methods uncovered by investigations into the fire that broke out at its Bukit Panjang exchange.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--SingTel's fire safety practices were not adequate and need to be addressed immediately, according to the telco's internal investigations into the blaze that broke out its telco's Bukit Panjang exchange.

(credit: SingTel)

Timeline of fire incident

1212hrs: Hot works start
1305hrs: Work pauses, lunch
1400hrs: Fire detected
1420hrs: SCDF arrives
1440hrs: Fire put out

"While the fire was due mainly to human error, the inquiry uncovered shortcomings in fire safety that require immediate rectification," said Bobby Chin, chairman of the Board Committee of Inquiry (BCOI), at a media briefing here on Monday. The independent committee was set up a week following the fire and tasked to recommend improvements to the SingTel board.

The BCOI confirmed preliminary findings from early November when SingTel blamed an employee's use of an unauthorized blowtorch for hot works at a cable chamber as the main cause. The fire had brought down several banking and communications services across the country last month.

Providing further detail, it explained the SingTel employee had borrowed the blowtorch from a third party contractor as he did not bring along the company-issued equipment. However, the unauthorized blowtorch generated a flame that was almost twice as hot, at 800 degrees celsius instead of 450 degrees celsius.
"The use of the unauthorized blowtorch most likely caused localized overheating, resulting in a slowburning fire in the cable chamber," said SingTel's statement.

The problem was compounded by the lapse in protocol and supervision, when the employee broke for lunch after the hot works without reactivating the fire detection alarm. The alarm had been switched off in accordance with procedure to prevent false alarms.

Chin explained that SingTel had fire suppression equipment on all floors where they was electrical equipment, but not for the cable chambers which were assessed as low risk due to the more "passive" infrastructure.

Slew of measures to address safety gaps

To beef up SingTel's resiliency and prevent future occurrences of similar incidents, the BCOI outlined a slew of recommendations which the telco will adopt. Here are some of the highlights:

  • By end-2014, SingTel will be phase out the use of lead-based sealants in its cable chambers in favor of Multi Cable Transit (MCT) systems. In the sealant method, blowtorches are used to soften the material plugging a pipe in order for a cable to be fit through. The seal is then left to harden again around the cable to prevent gas and water from entering. The newer MCT system is mechanical and eliminates the need for hot works.
  • A 24-hour fire watch has also been implemented after completion of hot works, instead of the previous half-hour. This will be supplemented by handheld thermal imaging cameras. In the interim, SingTel has also switched to hot air blowers without an open flame instead of blowtorches.
  • SingTel will pursue closer collaboration with other industry players to plan a coordinated response in the event of a major network incidents in future.
lead seal vs MCT
The lead seal method is older and requires hot works, whereas the MCT method is mechanical and relatively safer. (credit: SingTel)

Chua Sock Koong, SingTel's group CEO, said the fire was an isolated incident but the company was "very sorry for this". She added the telco would be reviewing and tightening its protocols.

The employee involved in causing the fire has been with SingTel for 30 years, added Chua. He has been suspended with pay, pending the investigation results.

"We do have safety policies and procedures in place. Unfortunately, some were not followed," said Chin. 

The October 9 incident affected SingTel's own services as well as as that of its rivals StarHub and M1, disrupting fixed voice lines, broadband, and TV services. ATMs and 18 branches operated by DBS Bank, as well as ATMs managed by OCBC Bank, were also affected.

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