Fire protection failure at key exchanges: whistleblower

Source: Bendigo Advertiser

A whistleblower has revealed critical Telstra exchanges in Bendigo have little fire protection, threatening communications systems across the country.

The source said the city’s main and smaller exchanges were at risk of a fire similar to the one that shut down phone and internet services across south west Victoria in November last year.

The source claimed fire protection at Telstra’s major communications hub in Short Street was “extremely lacking” and a major fire at the main exchange would “take out a fair proportion of communications systems across Australia”, including the internet and 000 calls.

“There are a lot of satellite dishes on top which provide a lot of satellite communications,” the source said.

“It’s a fairly major passage between Melbourne, Sydney and other cities.”

The whistleblower also claimed fire alarms had been removed or deactivated at most smaller exchanges, labelled “less important” in a letter sent to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade from building consultants Henry Group in 2011.

The source said of Bendigo’s 10 exchanges, only the main ones in Short and Williamson streets had smoke detectors, some of which were broken.

They said fire protection at the two main exchanges was faulty and inadequate.

“And the exchanges with no alarms, they rely on equipment failure; if multiple pieces of equipment fall over, that’s how they know there’s a fire,” the source said. “The ones that do have protection sense smoke, that’s all... there’s no heat detection units, there’s no fire suppression.

“The fire extinguishers were removed from most of the exchanges. They figure if there are fire extinguishers, they’ve got to train the person and show them how to use them.”

The source said a Telstra statement on January 8 that all exchanges were protected by “state-of-the-art” systems was false.

The source said it could take some time for smoke to be detected in some situations, with smoke needing to spread to a section with working alarms before an alert was raised. 

A Telstra spokesman told the Bendigo Advertiser all major exchanges had smoke and fire detection equipment.

 The spokesman said fire detection equipment was monitored by local authorities and Telstra’s Global Operations Centre.

The Telstra spokesman said the Building Code of Australia did not require smaller portable exchange sites (known as “SCAX” sites) to contain smoke and fire detection equipment because of their size.

“Generally, these are effectively demountable huts, with a single small room,’’ the spokesman said.

“The BCA contains different requirements for different types and sizes of buildings, so the fire safety measures in many of our buildings vary due to the requirements of the BCA.” Telstra is reviewing all of the company’s exchanges following the November blaze in Warrnambool.

The federal government is also reviewing the Warrnambool exchange.

Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy said in Bendigo this week that regional areas often had older infrastructure and the safety concerns should be raised with Telstra.

“Look, if there’s suggestions that the Bendigo exchange may not be fireproof enough, then that should be taken up with Telstra immediately,” he said. 

“We’ve all moved so much of our lives online that the telephone network is now a vital piece of infrastructure. 

“So if it’s going to be compromised and these exchange fires are relatively rare, the impact is so much greater than it was than when the network was designed.

“We don’t want to see a repetition of what happened in Warrnambool.”

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