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SingTel: 'Unauthorized blowtorch' caused fire

A SingTel employee has been blamed for causing a fire last month that brought down various banking and communications services in Singapore.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor on

SINGAPORE--A SingTel employee has been blamed for a fire that broke out at its Bukit Panjang exchange last month, bringing down several banking and communications services across the country last month.  

In a statement released late Wednesday, SingTel said its preliminary investigations revealed the fire occurred when maintenance work was being carried out at one of its lead-in pipes located in the cable chamber. The October 9 incident affected its 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. 

SingTel said: "The fire was caused by an employee not following strict maintenance procedures, including the use of an unauthorized blowtorch. The fire was localized at the affected lead-in pipe, [which was] one of three separate pipes that houses cables connecting to customer homes and business premises."

The telco said it had "immediately activated" contingency and diversification plans. And while the incident had disrupted the various banking and communications services, SingTel noted it had "successfully" re-routed traffic through other exchanges. "Services for the majority of customers served by the Bukit Panjang Exchange continued uninterrupted," it said.

The carrier added that it was treating the incident "very seriously" and insisted it had always ensured its contingency plans and safety measures met global benchmarks. Nonetheless, it said it had since "strengthened" existing processes to prevent a recurrence. These measures include limiting maintenance work that requires the application of heat, introducing the use of "improved" tools and equipment, and reinforcing employee training on safety requirements and operations. 

SingTel CEO Chua Sock Koong said in the statement: "We recognize the importance of reliable communication services to customers and Singapore's status as a leading financial and business hub. We apologize unreservedly to all our customers for any inconvenience caused.

"We are committed to learning from this experience and welcome recommendations from the BCOI (Board Committee of Inquiry) and independent experts to enhance our operations," Chua added. 

Reporting to the SingTel board, the BCOI is running its own "independent review" of the fire to investigate the circumstances that led to the incident. It has been tasked to review and recommend improvements to the telco's incident management, network design, and contingency processes. Its findings will be made public when ready. 

Services affected by the October 9 fire were gradually restored in the days following the incident, and SingTel had offered compensation to its customers in the form of free speed boost for three months, and a month's free access to all its TV channels.

In his post following the fire, ZDNet blogger and tech lawyer Bryan Tan suggested the incident could result in several implications regarding service level agreement because it affected not only SingTel's own customers, but also the customers of other telcos as well as other businesses in the banking sector. 

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