Data cable fire hazard: can your business survive after a fire?

A disaster for a business can be a result of any of a number of events — as common as an extended loss of mains power, floods, and fires or as dramatic as a bomb explosion, hurricanes and earthquakes.

Whatever the cause, the results can be severe, possibly involving fatalities, injuries,

and/or premises rendered not capable of being occupied, and/or critical business systems becoming non-operational.

Businesses are now more vulnerable than ever to disruptions in their computer networks and systems.

The increased use of e-business applications has compounded the problem since a minute downtime in e-business is noticeable, and another supplier is only a mouse-click away.

According to the United Kingdom (UK) Building Research Establishment (BRE)/Loss Prevention Council (LPC), approximately, a third of all businesses that suffer a disaster go out of business within one year despite being fully insured. Furthermore, the financial losses occurring each year due to fire damage to buildings, contents and the subsequent business interruption amount to at least US$1.2 billion per year. Business continuity in the event of a disaster is essential for the survival of companies, particularly in today’s fast-moving business world, and sound risk management has moved to the top of the corporate agenda, especially in the UK, following the publication of the Turnbull Report. Procedures to ensure sound risk management is now required of all London Stock Exchange (LSE) listed companies. This report contains robust and practical guidance that will help companies ensure that they have effective risk management and internal control systems. The LSE will require listed companies to put in place procedures to implement the guidance set out in the report and companies will also have to report regularly on their effectiveness.

Full compliance will be expected this year.

Fire disasters can normally be minimized by taking the necessary preventative measures, as the saying goes ‘Prevention is

Better than Cure’. The typical discussion among IT managers focuses on network and cabling performances. Data cable fire performance is not in their vocabulary or just an after thought. Although data cable on its own is not a source of fire, the massive amount of installed cables does represent an increase in the amount of combustible material (hence fire load) within the premises. Currently, there are no requirements in Europe and Asia for marking these cables according to their fire performance. These cable markings are useful for the fire or health and safety inspectors and insurance surveyors because they facilitate the identification of the cable safety performance level, which is valuable from a building inspection and risk assessment standpoint. This is in contrast to the situation in North America and Mexico where all communication cables must meet one of four levels of fire-resistance requirements and bear the necessary markings. This hierarchy of cable fire requirement is mapped to the different installation practices. In the US these requirements are set in the National

Electrical Code (NEC) Articles 770 and 800, which are issued by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

This situation is about to change. In the European Union (EU), the European Commission has published the Construction Product Directive (CPD), 89/106/EEC. Recently, cables are included in this Directive and work is in progress to select the appropriate test methods and limits for the hierarchy of cable fire performance requirements known as EuroClasses. Once completed and approved, mandatory cable fire performance marking will be required by the Directive.

Further, the BRE/LPC published a design guide that allows architects and building designers to take into account insurers’ recommendations for the fire protection of buildings. These relate mainly to the protection of business by minimizing fire and smoke damage and business interruption. The overall objective of the design guide is to assist in reducing financial loss by providing guidelines to contain the fire to one compartment of the building, and ensuring that when combustible materials such as cables are used in the construction of a building, they do not make significant contribution to the growth and propagation of the fire.

This design guide aims to complement the statutory building regulations and provides additional requirements set by the insurers. The increased standards required by the insurers are designed not only to provide safety for the people involved in the fire, but also to protect the assets of the business and to minimize the cost of fire damage to buildings and their contents.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) recently published a Technical Briefing Report for insurers that provides further guidance to the insurance industry in establishing their strategy. This technical report complements the above design guide and is based on the cable fire safety research work carried out by Avaya, polymer suppliers and other cable manufacturers in collaboration with BRE/LPC, Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and the UK Department of Transport and the Regions (DETR). This document, together with the design guide, presents the insurers’ standards for fire protection of buildings and is intended to assist architects and other professional advisers in reconciling the provisions of the national legislation standards with the recommendation of the insurance industry. As most insurance companies are now operating globally, the recommendations outlined in the ABI report and the BRE/LPC design guide could apply globally too.

Last year, the NFPA Research Foundation and UL in the US identified a new cable fire performance level known as limited combustible (LC) and for cables to be LC listed, they must pass the NFPA 255 and

NFPA 259 tests. The test requirements for LC listing are far more stringent than those of CMP/OFNP/OFCP (using UL 910/NFPA 262 test) listing, and includes heat and humidity aging and slitting of cable jacket.

All these developments are major steps in setting the minimum or enhancing the cable fire performance requirement for the structured cabling industry. A hierarchy of fire performance levels mapped to the installation practices will definitely enhance risk assessment and provide an additional tool to effective risk management.

In summary, Avaya’s recommendation is to install the right cable in the right environment and this should be based on risk assessment. In particular, enhanced fire performance cables such as FSFR/CMP/OFNP rated cables should be installed in the following areas

Historic/Listed buildings (e.g. museums) for the protection of heritage

High business and fire risk areas where there is a large concentration of powered equipment, critical business areas, presence of airflow in concealed spaces (e.g. communications rooms, data centers and dealer floors) to prevent business interruption and loss

Strategic centers (e.g. air traffic control centers) for public safety and national security

Public areas (e.g. airports, hospitals, public libraries, schools, colleges, and universities) for public safety

In these areas, the costs of human fatalities, business losses and interruptions, and irreplaceable heritage far outweigh the additional cost of the cable. It is ‘Better to be Safe than Sorry’.

In order to achieve the highest standards of fire protection together with the best available insurance terms for a completed building, early and close consultation between the client, architect and insurer is strongly recommended. Early consultation will allow appropriate risk assessment to be made and permit economical levels of performance to be set. Hence, cable fire markings coupled with proper installation practices will provide end-users, regulators and insurers with valuable fire risk assessment information.

Dr. T.C. Tan is a distinguished member of the technical staff at Avaya Labs.

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