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Data in Danger

15 February 2005

Expensive fire protection systems protect the data hubs of most organisations. However, unless the Comms Room enclosure is air tight, they will not work effectively as Jane Fenwick discovers

NEXT TO ITS PEOPLE, the next most valuable asset of any organisation is its data. The ‘Comms Room’ is the nerve centre of most organisations requiring separate treatment in a shrine-like air-conditioned compartment in a secure part of the building.

Fire is just one of several hazards liable to render your data useless, hence Comms Rooms and their equipment are often protected by gaseous fire-extinguishing systems that must comply with BS ISO 14520 P1:2000 (E). To be effective, gases that extinguish a fire must be retained within a Comms Room enclosure for at least 10 minutes to meet system specification. In reality many Comms Rooms are far from airtight and this can significantly if not fatally jeopardise the validity of the fire protection system.

Even when correctly airsealed and regularly maintained, the Comms Room itself may not be a fire rated enclosure and highly vulnerable to smoke and fire spreading from other parts of the building.

According to passive fire protection specialists, Checkmate Fire Solutions, there is a general level of ignorance not only about the BS standard, but also the impact of constant change on the air seals. By their very nature, Comms Rooms are frequently changed and added to as business and systems grow and change, with consequential changes to cabling and air conditioning. Breaches to the structure of the fire cell should be fire stopped automatically, but this does not often happen. These breaches are often out of sight.

Checkmate Fire Solutions has found that many Comms Rooms have been incorrectly airsealed or certified. In some cases they have not even been fitted with a pressure valve to prevent gas pressure reaching levels that may actually seriously damage the enclosure which would not only completely cancel the effectiveness of the fire protection, but also increase equipment damage. Alan Oliver, director of Checkmate Fire Solutions said, “Our experience shows that many systems installed to protect Comms Rooms will not function effectively in a real fire situation. We recently tested a room in a well known organisation where the Comms Room is vital to its activities. The gas released has to be retained within the enclosure for a minimum of 10 minutes to meet system specification, but the actual reading for the room was 52 seconds.”

Problems arise when FMs and communications equipment supplier do not have a full understanding of the relevant standards. In an ideal world, the Comms Room would be planned and constructed within a fire rated enclosure. In reality, they are often sited in existing buildings and typically evolve in size as the business grows. Often they are not even contained within fire rated partitions.

Checkmate Fire Solutions provides a complete fit-out package including various specifications of fire-rated enclosures, gas suppression systems, smoke and fire detection systems, air conditioning, raised floors and suspended ceilings. Full diagnostic testing and certification of the Comms Room and any other areas of strategic importance is undertaken by qualified engineers to BS ISO 14520, and subsequently checked and maintained every six months.

A recent investigation of the Comms Room at Jordan Grand Prix’s headquarters found that introduction of new cabling through the Comms Room walls had compromised the integrity of the enclosure and the retention of gas for the required period could not be guaranteed (see graphs of test results below).

“This is a very common occurrence” said Oliver. “Comms Rooms everywhere are continually being modified and need regular checking, it is often impossible to detect breaches with a visual inspection as they may be under suspended floors, above false ceilings or hidden behind equipment.

Checkmate tested the room to identify and locate areas of leakage. The room was then airsealed to the required standard, re-tested, and achieved a hold-up time of 16 minutes, which is equivalent to a 94% sealant reading. Oliver maintains that “this is about as good as it gets!” Checkmate, who are certified as a Competent Body, were then able to issue a Fire Safety Certificate for the Comms Room.

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