Fire safety measures are not just about preventing loss of life. Alan Oliver looks at the regulations affecting communications rooms - often the lifeblood of an organsiation
10 June 2005
Whatever is not excellent, get someone else to do it - and get the best there is, says business guru John Argenti. That is very relevant to the fire safety management of communications rooms.
It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 comms rooms in the UK, the majority of which are protected by gaseous fire-extinguishing systems, which must comply with BS ISO 14520 P1: 2000(E). This standard not only regulates the installed fire protection equipment but also places responsibility on the facilities manager for the continued effectiveness of the system.
Unfortunately, experience shows that many systems installed to protect comms rooms will not function effectively in a real fire situation. This is mainly because elements forming the comms room enclosure are not adequately sealed - not least due to the room being constantly breached by new cabling.
In addition there would appear to be a general ignorance of the requirements of BS ISO 14520 P1: 2000(E) regarding comms room enclosures:
220.127.116.11. At least every 12 months it shall be determined whether boundary penetration or other changes to the protected enclosure have occurred that could affect leakage and extinguishant performance. If this cannot be visually determined, it shall be positively established by repeating the test for enclosure integrity in accordance with annex E
18.104.22.168. Where the integrity test reveals increased leakage that would result in an inability to retain the extinguishant for the required period, remedial action shall be carried out
22.214.171.124. Where it is established that changes to the volume of the enclosure or to the type of hazard within the enclosure, or both, have occurred, the system shall be redesigned to provide the original degree of protection
It is also recommended that the type of hazard within the enclosure, and the volume it occupies, be regularly checked to ensure that the required concentration of extinguishant can be achieved and maintained.
It is hardly surprising if FMs are not fully abreast of the standards to which comms rooms must comply as in addition to that quoted above, installations must also meet: BS5306 Section 5.1, which relates to fire extinguishing installation and equipment of premises; BS5839 relating to fire detection and alarm systems; BS7273 Part 1 which covers the operation of fire protection measures and electrical activation of gaseous total flooding extinguishing systems; and BS6266 covering fire protection for electrical data processing installations.
Experience shows that many comms rooms fitted with a gaseous fire-extinguishing system have never been correctly airsealed or certified. In some cases they have also not been fitted with a pressure release valve to prevent gas pressure reaching levels that may seriously damage the enclosure, which would not only completely cancel the effectiveness of the fire protection system but also increase equipment damage.
There are a number of reasons why gaseous fire-extinguishing systems for comms rooms may not be executed correctly. In addition to managers not having a full understanding of the relevant standards and the effect of the comms room environment, installers of gaseous fire-extinguishing systems are not responsible for the enclosure or comms room itself. There is little policing of comms room fire protection as it is not seen as a means of escape issue and therefore not perceived to be a threat to life.
Even a comms room adequately sealed at installation stage may soon become compromised as, by the very nature of its function, changes to the equipment and cabling are frequently required, often involving breaches to the structure. These breaches are often hidden, as they may be behind equipment or in floor or ceiling voids and are the main reason for the required regular airseal checking.
The fire protection industry traditionally focussed attention on life safety and preventing fire spreading to other buildings. Building regulations tend to focus on these issues, so comms rooms, although the lifeblood of organisations, are not protected adequately. It can take up to three years for a business to recover from a serious fire during which time many go out of business.
But even when correctly airsealed to meet BS ISO 14520 P1: 2000(E), and regularly maintained, the comms room will often not be a fire-rated enclosure. This is because they have often grown and evolved in a location that was not pre-planned and have become housed in non-fire-rated partitions. This is not ideal when statistics show the majority of fires affecting comms rooms spread there from another part of the building. A well-sealed enclosure will prevent the smoke from a fire outside of the room activating the system, with all the cost and disruption that entails.
FMs need to give these issues the time they warrant if they are to safeguard the business continuity of their organisation. In particular those involved with taking ownership of new buildings containing comms rooms should investigate aspects of fire integrity, ideally at the design stage, when substantial improvements can be implemented at relatively little extra cost.
Defects to existing comms room enclosures can often also be diagnosed and rectified to the required british standard within a sensible timeframe and at low cost.
The coming months will see a plethora of fire safety risk assessments to comply with the new Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. A comprehensive assessment should address both life safety and business continuity issues. Adequate protection of comms rooms, complying with required standards, should be a key component of such an assessment.
Alan Oliver is a director of Checkmate Fire Solutions