Canadian Consulting Engineer

Fire Safety: Bell Canada fire brings communications chaos

"No-one here has experienced anything like it, and some people have been around for 30 years," says Don Hogarth, the media relations manager at Bell Canada. He was commenting on the fire and subsequen...

August 1, 1999   Canadian Consulting Engineer

“No-one here has experienced anything like it, and some people have been around for 30 years,” says Don Hogarth, the media relations manager at Bell Canada. He was commenting on the fire and subsequent communications breakdown that hit downtown Toronto in July.

One fire in a switching station in the Simcoe Street station showed how dependent we have become on the communications infrastructure, and how vulnerable we are to just one breakdown in the system. The small fire that happened at 7.30 a.m. shut down over 100,000 telephones lines for almost eight hours.

The fire not only crippled businesses, but even left the city’s head of emergency services without a telephone. He had to move to a fire station to set up a temporary command post. Hospital emergency lines weren’t working and traffic lights were thrown off schedule. Travel agents, brokerages and telemarketing firms were brought to a standstill. People were left short of cash as far away as Vancouver as automatic tellers across the country stopped working. Credit and debit cards were no good since store clerks could not process the transactions.

At the core of the crisis was the design of the building’s life safety system, which left the emergency generators virtually useless. The multi-storey building is fully sprinklered, so when the fire broke out in the battery room water flooded the floor. “Water and electricity don’t make a great mix,” Hogarth observes. Because it would have been dangerous to switch on the generators, Bell had to rely on batteries for back-up power. The batteries began failing after a few hours.

A safety design that disables emergency generators is not unusual but Bell is taking a second look at its fire-safety systems. According to one fire consultant, the July incident shows a basic anomaly in current building practice. On one hand the building code requires sprinklering, while on the other hand electrical inspectors are concerned about the hazard of mixing electricity and water. These competing interests are often not resolved.


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