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FPE eXTRA Issue 50, February 2020

Fire Detection and The Rising Risk of Fire in Data Centers

By: Wes Marcks

Data processing and storage have become increasingly critical to personal, financial and medical records, essentially making data centers the central nervous system of business and society.1  As our dependence on data centers keeps growing, these facilities are working hard to ensure that digital information is safe – in terms of both cyber and physical security.

Trends to modernize facilities and the demand for co-location data centers – in which companies who outsource their data needs share server locations – will further boost new facility development. In fact, the global data center construction market totaled $43.7 billion in 2017, and if it grows at the expected rate of 10.2% annually, the market will hit $92.9 billion by 2025.2

Given the increasing importance of data centers in our business and personal lives, it is essential that they remain intact and operational as the industry expands. And that’s why it’s so critical to address a serious, but often overlooked, threat to data centers: fire.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Data centers are packed with hot electronic equipment, cables and wires, which – especially if frayed, overloaded or poorly maintained – make them susceptible to fires.

In addition, advances in cooling systems make it increasingly difficult for traditional passive smoke detection systems to sense fires early. As data centers house faster and faster servers, equipment inevitably becomes hotter and hotter, prompting data center operators to create better air flow to cool the equipment. These new cooling systems are so efficient at exhausting hot air and pulling in cool air from outside that they delay or prevent smoke from reaching fire detection sensors.

Furthermore, the trend toward co-location results in fragmented data center operations that can create more obstacles to fire detection. For example, while an entire floor might be dedicated to one company’s data, another company may require just a single server, rack or suite of server space and take up a small section of a floor. These are typically secure areas, making access for routine test, inspection and maintenance exercises challenging.

The Far Reach of Data Center Damage

Fires can wreak short-and-long-term devastation on data processing operations, but also reach far beyond the data center itself, impacting data center customers, their customers, and so forth.

For the data center itself, a fire can lead to equipment failure or loss, service disruption to businesses, as well as loss of the entire building. The cost of downtime in a large processing center can exceed $2 million per hour, says the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Consider the toll on Delta Airlines of a fire in an underground power source and its backup at the Atlanta International Airport in August 2016: More than 2,000 Delta flights were cancelled over three days,3  costing the airline $150 million4  and hurting the company’s brand image and its stock price.

But it’s not always actual fires that cause damage – fires and fire alarm system malfunctions account for more than four out of every 10 days that data centers are down due to non-informational technology issues.5

Fires also can cause a domino effect. According to the FCC, 95% of all fire damage within facilities is caused by the release of byproducts from the combustion of plastics – such as chloride and sulfur – that reacts with humidity to corrode electronic equipment. This often results in equipment degradation and damage, slower network performance and overall service interruption.6

A Unique Industry, A Unique Approach

By detecting a fire early on, data center facility management has more time to investigate, understand and control the situation, stage the response and avoid the cost of nuisance alarms, transfer data and processes to redundant systems, and reduce any impact on operations.

For smoke detection systems to work properly, the smoke needs to reach the sensor in sufficient, detectable density. The traditional approach to smoke detection is to place sensors near or at the ceiling of buildings on the assumption that smoke rises, but advances in data center cooling and design mean that only small concentrations of smoke may reach the ceiling at the start of a fire. As a result, a traditional fire detection may not detect the early stages of smoke and fire.

That’s why data centers may want to consider solutions like an aspirating smoke detection system, which actively samples air through hollow pipes placed in susceptible locations around the building. The system uses a photoelectric light scattering principle to detect the smoke. The system intercepts the smoke where it is generated, allowing for very early detection.

This enables data center operators to address potential issues before evacuation alarms are sounded and fire departments are alerted. In addition, these detectors have multi-level warnings and a wide range of sensitivity to detect even a wisp of smoke.

The key difference: while traditional systems take a passive approach to smoke detection, aspirating systems actively test air near the most likely sources of electrical fire around the building.

Catching Fires Before They Become Catastrophes

Just as cybersecurity is an ever evolving and growing threat for data centers, so is the threat from fire and other physical security issues. By using the latest technology to detect fires early, data center operators can prevent fire, smoke and water suppressant from wrecking their electronic equipment and causing significant business interruption.

Data center operators need to regularly check with their fire and life system safety providers to make sure they have the technology to detect fire early enough so that they can be treated as maintenance issues, not as firefighting exercises.

Wes Marcks is with Xtralis - A Honeywell Company


  2. Data Center Construction Market to 2025. The Insight Partners. Dec. 18, 2018.
  3. Sverdlik Y. Delta: Data Center Outage Cost Us $150M. Data Center Knowledge, Aug. 11, 2016.
  4. Sverdlik Y. Delta: Data Center Outage Cost Us $150M. Data Center Knowledge, Aug. 11, 2016.
  5. Elliott, Barry. (2015). Why data centres fail. An analysis of catastrophic failures in data centres over a five year period. Capitoline survey, 2015.
  6. Newman JS, et al. Development of smoke corrosion and leakage current damage functions. Fire Safety Journal (2013) 61: 92-99.

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