Addressing the challenges of telecommunications and information technology facilities
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
The trend in equipment used in today’s telecommunications and information technology (telecom/IT) facilities is for smaller, more powerful characteristics that can require unique operating features and create challenges for fire protection. New and different layout configurations, facility designs, power requirements, and environmental support, such as HVAC needs, have resulted in a changing landscape for these applications.
From a risk standpoint, the indirect impact of fire loss due to business interruption and loss of critical operations, sometimes geographically very distant from the telecom/IT facility itself, can far outweigh the direct property loss.
In March, the Fire Protection Research Foundation addressed these challenges with a workshop held in conjunction with the Foundation’s annual SUPDET (Suppression and Detection) Conference in Orlando, Florida. Titled “Workshop on Fire Protection Challenges in Telecommunications and Information Technology Centers,” the event brought together 90 fire protection professionals who contributed to the report now available at the Foundation’s website, nfpa.org/foundation.
This workshop was of interest to the technical committees responsible for NFPA 75, Protection of Information Technology Equipment, and NFPA 76, Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities. A joint task group of these committees is working to address the short- and long-term challenges both face due to the convergence of technology relating to their respective applications.
NFPA 75 came about as a direct result of a fire that destroyed an Air Force computer facility at the Pentagon on July 2, 1959. The fire scorched more than 4,000 square feet (372 square meters) of high-value equipment and still ranks as one of the largest fires the Arlington, Virginia, Fire Department ever tackled.
Several fires led to the development of NFPA 76, in particular the 1988 telephone exchange fire in Hinsdale, Illinois. The communication problems created by the loss of the Hinsdale facility affected hospitals, flights at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and other critical operations, highlighting the impact the loss of such facilities can have on a community.
The workshop reviewed the status and anticipated trends in telecom/IT centers, clarified their fire protection challenges, discussed applicable data and design approaches, identified fire protection challenges requiring resolution, and clarified the elements of an action plan to address these knowledge gaps. The elements have been separated into four basic categories of prevention, detection, suppression, and response, setting the stage for further refinement of action items to address the gaps.
Several weeks after the workshop, the joint task group met in conjunction with their respective technical committees and presented them with the workshop results to further clarify solutions. As a result of this and other information, a number of changes were recommended in the latest NFPA 75 and NFPA 76 revision cycles. The task group and technical committees subsequently discussed additional long-term needs, setting the stage for future research work. The Foundation looks forward to working with interested parties to implement these efforts.
In a changing world, it’s good to know we can adapt to the shifting landscapes and prevent disasters before they occur. Working together, we can address our long-term needs and avoid repeating the painful events of yesterday.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.