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In the line(s) of fire

Fire at PTCL building disrupts routine life, exposes vulnerabilities of telecom systems without backup supports

In the line(s) of fire

The visitors to the Habib Bank Limited (HBL), Davis Road, Lahore Branch, are taken by shock as they enter the main hall of the building. It is fully crowded and people cannot even move around without requesting others to clear way for them. The air-conditioners are also not working making it hard for the people to stay there for long.

The staff wears a tired look as it handles customers the way they would be decades ago when computers were a rare commodity in Pakistan. In those times all the entries were made manually in registers and the balance amount lying in different bank accounts was updated in the same way after every transaction.

The visitors are desperate as the cash officers are taking a lot of time to disburse cash against the cheques they present. But they are helpless as the staff has a reason to justify this delay. Their landlines are not working and their online system is down due to the fire that gutted the building of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) at Egerton Road last Sunday. The fire destroyed the equipment and severed links of thousands of landline and internet subscribers and this HBL branch was one of them.

Muhammad Arshad, a customer of the branch, says the staff is collecting cheques and making calls to the branches, where the internet is available, to confirm the amount available in different customers’ accounts. After ensuring that the balance amount is higher than that mentioned on the cheque they approve it from encashment. Similarly, the deposited amounts are kept in drawers, along with manually filled vouchers, and posted late at night from other branches which are still enjoying connectivity.

This is just one example of how the life in the city has been disrupted due to burning of a single telephone exchange. In an eerie pattern, this fire also broke in the little hours of Sunday (a weekly holiday) and engulfed the whole building within hours.

The fire also highlighted the importance of this building which was normally overlooked as an ordinary one by the passersby due to this fire, the helplines of police (15), Rescue-1122, PTCL (1217), Pakistan Railways (117), the Pakistan International Airlines (114) and Edhi (115) stopped working making it difficult for the general public to benefit from these facilities. Even today thousands of landlines are not working in the city.

Apart from severing landlines from the telecommunication network, the fire at this exchange known as the backbone of PTCL’s DSL service adversely affected different internet-based activities. For example, the trading in Lahore Stock Exchange (LSE), forex market and commodity exchanges was disrupted. Besides, several Auto Teller Machines (ATMs) stopped functioning and credit/debit card transactions were not honoured. This created inconvenience for many who had gone out for shopping or had already availed services without knowing that the plastic money they carried on them would become useless within no time.

TNS contacted PTCL spokesman Imran Janjua for his version but he said he had no updates on the topic and would revert the moment he had something new to share with the media.

The helplines of police (15), Rescue-1122, PTCL (1217), Pakistan Railways (117), the Pakistan International Airlines (114) and Edhi (115) stopped working, making it difficult for the general public to benefit from these facilities.

However, a senior engineer at PTCL shares his knowledge with TNS on conditions of withholding his name. He says the fire that damaged four floors of the building including that of Ufone could have been avoided if proper risk management mechanisms had been in place. For example, he says, the important telephone exchanges have duplication of services and fire-fighting systems that automatically start functioning in cases of fire. There are sprinkler systems that detect initial flames of fire and extinguish them immediately. But it seems this system was not in place and neither there was any compartmentalization which could have stopped fire from spreading from one part of the building to the other.

He says the Egerton Road building is very important as it is a transit exchange that connects several exchanges to other exchanges in the city. Explaining his point, he says there is one transit exchange for every five or six telephone exchanges and these transit exchanges are connected in the form of a loop. So the area exchanges are not connected to each other directly but through these transit points. The problem in this case was that there were no arrangements to switch all these connections to some other transit point in case of total collapse, he adds.

Mubashar Bashir, Senior Vice President (SVP), Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB) says their bank kept on serving the masses as they had devised large scale business continuation plans and conducted several mock exercises over the time. Besides, he says, they immediately advertised alternative contact numbers for consumers in case they were unable to access those they already had with them.

He says there was record load of customers at their Point of Sale (POS) ATMs from where every other person tried to withdraw cash and make their necessary purchases before Eid holidays started. These POS machines are placed at major shopping centers, departmental stores, leading hotels and so on. The extraordinary load was for the reason that a large number of ATMs in the city were disconnected from the network. What saved them was their dependence on more than one data connectivity links which did not force them to go offline, he adds.

Khurram Mehran, Director, Public Relations (PR) at Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) tells TNS that under the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), all major communication breakdown have to be reported by service providers to PTA Headquarters and its zonal offices located at Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi and Quetta through prompt information reporting system i.e. through telephone calls, fax, email etc. Besides, it is also binding on the operator to give details in press/media of such breakdown and the efforts it will make for its quick/early restoration. The PTCL, he says, has followed these procedures and is currently making efforts to rectify the problem.

The document on SOPs also mentions that for 100 per cent redundancy, all the “service providers together with PTCL will sign “Service Level Agreement” (SLA) and will make necessary fault rectification contingency/alternate plans for automatic switching over to functional route/sector by passing troubled spot/segment of the Network to facilitate restoration of communication in quick time.”

But the question here is whether the PTCL has fulfilled this requirement or not. Technically speaking, redundancy refers to the resiliency of communications systems that is achieved by alternative means or systems. It is a method of insurance against failure of primary system functionality and may also be used to preclude errors or failures from occurring in order to insure error free exchange of information. So, one is led to believe that there was no concept of redundancy in this case.

Dr Ahmed Raza, District Emergency Officer (DEO) at rescue 1122, tells TNS that their helpline was disrupted for a few minutes but was restored shortly as it was also linked to the Garden Town telephone exchange. He says it took them around 30 hours to extinguish the fire. The reason, he says, was that the fire was detected after two to three hours and during this time it had engulfed a major part of the building and the equipment installed there. Had there been a proper smoke detection and fire alarm system in place, the response would have been timely and damage would not have been of this scale, he concludes.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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