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Five Things to Note from Investigation of Fire at Bukit Panjang Exchange

By Joy Hou & Sidney Wong - on 17 Dec 2013, 9:10am

Five Things to Note from Investigation of Fire at Bukit Panjang Exchange


Close to two months after setting up an independent Board Committee of Inquiry (BCOI) to investigate the fire incident at Bukit Panjang Exchange, the findings and recommendations are released to the public. The SingTel Board has accepted and endorsed the findings and recommendations. Here are the top five things you need to know about the report:

  1. About The BCOI

    The BCOI is chaired by Mr Bobby Chin Yoke Choong, a non-executive and independent director of SingTel and Chairman of its Risk Committee. He is supported by two other non-executive and independent directors, Mrs Fang Ai Lian and Mr Low Check Kian. Mrs Fang is the Chairman of SingTel's Audit Commitee and Mr Low is a Member of SingTel's Corporate Governance and Nominations Committee.

    The BCOI was assisted by independent technical consultant, Bell Labs and communications consultant, Bell Pottinger.  
  2. Most Probable Cause of Fire

    Following the full investigation, the BCOI concluded that the most probable cause of the fire was hot works carried out during maintenance activities in the cable chamber. According to SingTel, the employee carrying out the hot works used an unauthorized blowtorch to heat and shrink a lead-based sealant to seal a cable duct.

    The employee did not have the company issued blowtorch equipment with him and had to borrow another one from a contractor. The unauthorized blowtorch generated heat of about 800 degrees Celsius, which is almost twice as hot as that produced by SingTel's blowtorch. As a result, it most likely caused localized overheating which led to a slow burning fire in the cable chamber.
  3. Deactivation of the Fire Detection System

    SingTel states that the cable chamber has no electrical or heat generating equipment, hence the chamber is not equipped with fire suppression gas or sprinkler system. Instead, the cable chambers are only equipped with smoke detectors and hand-held fire extinguishers

    As part of the standard operating procedures, the fire detection system (smoke detectors) was deactivated before carrying out hot works. After completing the hot works, the employee went for lunch without reactivating the system

    It is believed that hot works were carried out between 12 noon to 1.15PM before the employee went for lunch. The fire was only detected at 2PM and the SCDF was notified of the incident at 2.16PM. The fire was extinguished within 20 minutes. 

    Hand-held fire extinguishers were not used by the staff at the Exchange as the smoke was overwhelming. Prior to SCDF's arrival, about 50 people had already evacuated themselves, with no injuries being reported.

  4. SingTel's Fire Prevention, Network Reliability and Resiliency, and Communications Rated

    The BCOI's findings and recommendations cover three main areas: fire prevention in exchanges, network reliability and resiliency, as well as public relations and communications.

    While the fire was mainly due to human error, the inquiry uncovered shortcomings in fire safety practices that require immediate rectifications.

    In the area of cable chamber operations, SingTel was given a red rating which means that there is a lot of improvement to be done.

    The BCOI found that the use of lead-based sealants, and the associated use of open flames, posed fire risks. As such, the BCOI recommends that SingTel replace lead-based sealants with alternative materials that do not require heating which will remove the need for hot works in cable chambers.

    Other recommendations include enhancing fire detection, fire watch practices and automatic fire suppression measures to augment existing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

    In the area of network reliability and resiliency, Bell Labs advised the BCOI that SingTel has a robust core network architecture with a high degree of resilience against incidents such as the fire.

    Bell Labs also found that SingTel took fast and effective measures in its incident management and applied innovative processors, which allowed multiple splicing teams to simultaneously carry out repair work in a limited space.

    Despite the green rating for very good performance, the BCOI recommends SingTel to take a stronger engagement with industry players in the existing three-tier industry structure for fibre services, and to establish a national framework that will foster a coordinated response from all telecom stakeholders on an agile, proactive basis in the event of a major network incident. 

    SingTel should also initiate regular exchanges with other global operators to share key learning points and best practices in network resilience and reliability.

    In the area of communications and public relations, Bell Pottinger advised the BCOI that SingTel was prompt and transparent in releasing information about the incident to the public, and hence found no areas requiring immediate improvement.

    SingTel was found to have used multiple channels, including social media, to communicate effectively with customers. The telco was given a green rating.

    To further enhance communications crisis responses, the BCOI's key recommendations for SingTel are to formalize crisis communications protocols, extending crisis simulation drills to include key spokespeople and corporate communications staff, as well as adopt a more structured process for media and internal updates.
  5. What Has SingTel Done So Far

    SingTel is already in process of converting all duct seal installations to multi-cable transit (MCT) systems. These systems do not require hot works in cable chambers. Completion of this exercise is estimated to be at the end of 2014.

    In addition, the telco has switched to an alternative method for hot works, which uses a hot air blower without open flames, and enforced a longer fire watch. SingTel has already instituted a 24-hour fire watch after completion of hot works and supplemented fire watches with the use of handheld thermal imaging cameras

    The employee, who has worked at SingTel for over 30 years, has since been suspended from duty. The management will review disciplinary actions for the employee according to the company's policies. 

    The management is committed to implementing the recommendations outlined in the BCOI's report and is required to report to the Board within three months on the implementation details and progress.

SingTel - "We recognize the impact of the incident on businesses and customers. The BCOI has given us a critical review of our operations, which will steer and motivate us to raise our standards. We will work with the industry to define a national engagement framework for greater collaboration to ensure that Singapore's telecoms infrastructure remains resilient even during major network outages," said Mr Simon Israel, Chairman of SingTel.

SingTel - "We take full responsibility for the incident. We recognize the inconvenience it caused our customers and the public, and we are sorry for this. The BCOI review offers a valuable opportunity to take a step back and comprehensively assess our network design and operations. We want to assure customers that it is our top priority to prevent a recurrence and we have started work on the enhancements," said Ms Chua Sock Koong, Group CEO of SingTel.

For the full BCOI report, click here.