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Fire in BSNL exchange
Geetanjali Gayatri
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 30
Telecom services all over the region went for a spin when a major fire broke out at the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) exchange, Punjab Telecom Circle, in Sector 17, here today. All emergency phone numbers went dead, over one lakh phone subscribers were disconnected, broadband and internet users were logged out and banks and ATMs were practically non-functional with lease lines snapping following the fire.

Private telecom networks and railway, airline bookings were also affected. The stock market and other financial transactions conducted through the information highway also collapsed, causing a loss worth several crores. The tri-city of Panchkula, Mohali and Chandigarh particularly was cut off from the entire world through out the day.

In the operation to control the fire that lasted for over six hours, leaving everything covered in a thick blanket of soot, six persons were evacuated from the building bellowing smoke while five firemen fell unconscious due to suffocation. Fire tenders, bouzers, exhaust blowers and emergency tenders were pressed into service to control the spread of fire.

Officials of the telecom department, caught napping without any contingency plan, said they had no alternative to make even the emergency numbers functional. They claimed that though the work to restore the connections had already begun, it would take another day to get the transmission going.

The fire broke out at around 6:45 am in the transmission room of the exchange which controls the entire BSNL network in the region, damaging the optic fibre cable. The fire was first “smelt” by the guard and the canteen contractor and his employees who were in the building at that time.

“I literally walked into a cloud of smoke. I first called the fire brigade at 7:04 am but nobody responded. Then, somebody personally went to the fire station to inform them. I also saw the canteen contractor and his men shouting for help from the terrace,” says Jograj, the security personnel posted at the entry to the building.

The first task of the firemen who arrived promptly after the information was to evacuate the canteen staff stranded on the terrace using the hydraulic lift following which the pumping out of smoke was given top priority since there was no way to gain access into the building.

As the smoke got denser and the smell more pungent, the firemen tried to find their way inside the closeted building with very few windows and entries. They had to break down window panes, cut through grills and find their way inside the building through a clogged-with-dirt, debris and rubble emergency exit.

“The likely cause of the fire was a short circuit. However, while the initial fire began and went off as quickly, the smoldering flames spread to the false ceiling and the entire wiring network above it. The fire could have been much bigger but the day was saved due to prompt action. It took us nearly half-an-hour to locate the seat of fire which was not visible due to the suffocating smoke,” fire officer S.K. Gosain, said.

Interestingly, though the building is equipped with fire-fighting equipment, the staff was not trained to use it in case of a fire. Instead of using the equipment to put out the fire, the staff present in the building ran out, leading to its spread, a fire official stated.

The Principal General Manger (operation), Punjab Telecom Circle, S.R. Aggarwal, said the failure of the transmission media had affected landlines across Sectors 1 to 26 along with WLL services in the tri-city, broadband, internet and leased line network, long distance (STD/ISD) traffic, outgoing and incoming, besides the GSM post-paid cellular service in the tri-city and parts of the Punjab circle. He also added that all pre-paid customers would be given suitable time extension for charging their connections which were due to expire today.

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Biz loss may run into crores
Rajmeet Singh
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, June 30
Business transactions worth crores carried out through the use of information technology were virtually suspended for the entire day today following a major fire in the Sector-17 telephone exchange of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) Punjab telecom circle, here.

The lack of immediate backup put a question mark over the preparedness of the national telecom service provider in facing such emergencies.

Essential service providers like fire stations, police stations, hospitals and armed forces were affected due to the failure of the communication facilities.

This also meant that the functioning of IT-dependent services like banking and stock markets was affected in a major way as transactions could not be carried out in the usual manner.

Some of the ATMs in the tricity area were also not functioning.

A large number of applicants who had come to Chandigarh to apply for jobs in the office of the Director of Public Instructions (Schools), Punjab, were disappointed as they could not get drafts issued from the banks. Incidentally, today was the last date for submitting applications.

Sources in BSNL said apart from affecting around 16 lakh mobile subscribers in the Punjab circle, fed through the exchange, around 15,000 broadband connections, internet, lease line networks feeding different government-run facilities, and all long distance calls (STD and ISD) outgoing and incoming from the tricity were affected.

Principal GM (operations), Punjab Telecom Circle, S.R. Aggarwal, said restoration activities had already commenced and the affected services would be restored in the shortest possible time.

Though the exact cause of the fire is being looked in to by the fire department and central agencies, sources said expensive equipment were gutted in the fire. The optical fibre cable (connecting the exchange to the outside world) was also damaged in the fire.

Due to extensive damage to the transmission equipment it can take some time for restoration, said an official.

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