A data center employs advanced fire protection systems and implements comprehensive prevention, detection, and suppression strategies to mitigate potential fire hazards. Despite these measures, data center fires – while seemingly infrequent, with only a few major incidents occurring every year across thousands of facilities worldwide – present a significant threat that should not be dismissed.

Data center fires occur in specialized buildings equipped with power and cooling infrastructure that are used to house computer servers and network equipment. These fires are caused by factors including electrical failures, overheating lithium-ion batteries, inadequate maintenance, and human error.

The impact of data center fires extends beyond immediate physical damage to the facility and equipment, often resulting in substantial downtime required to restore operations. This downtime, frequently lasting several hours, assumes that the servers and other critical IT equipment are not irreparably damaged by fire, heat, soot, or water, which can further delay recovery. From a business standpoint, these incidents can cost data center operators anywhere from $250,000 to over $500,000 per hour of outage, underscoring the considerable economic impact of fires in these facilities.

Dive deeper into the world of data center fires, where Dgtl Infra will explore not only the common causes but also recount 22 significant incidents that have shaped the industry. With our in-depth analysis on fire protection, prevention, detection, and suppression techniques currently employed in data centers, you will gain invaluable knowledge about safeguarding this critical infrastructure. Continue reading to understand the real-world implications of data center fires and arm yourself with strategies to prevent and handle these catastrophic events.

Table of Contents

Data Center Fires – An Overview

In data centers, as with any environment, four elements are essential to ignite a fire: fuel, heat, oxygen, and a chemical chain reaction known as combustion.

Fire Tetrahedron Fuel Heat Oxygen Chemical Chain Reaction

Fuel – Data Center Fires

Data centers contain a variety of combustible materials, a situation exacerbated by the increasing use of plastic in ancillary equipment and materials. These potential fuel sources can be grouped as follows:

  • Electronic Equipment: items such as servers (which utilize printed circuit boards), routers, switches, power supplies, batteries, and wiring insulation are all capable of fueling fires in a data center. Their combustible components, including plastic casings, electrical wiring, transformers, and capacitors, can ignite under certain conditions
  • Infrastructure Materials: fire risks are posed by the significant quantities of cabling, cabinet enclosures, backboards, and flooring and ceiling panels made from combustible materials. Non-fire-resistant thermal or acoustic insulation can also contribute to a fire
  • Storage Materials and Furnishings: paper documents and cardboard boxes, often used for storage or transport of data center equipment, can serve as fuel in a fire. Moreover, many data centers have control rooms or offices furnished with desks, chairs, and other items that could potentially act as fuel sources

Heat – Data Center Fires

Data centers generate heat through the operation of extensive electronic equipment, such as servers, with temperature representing the intensity of this heat. While specific setup and cooling systems can result in variability in data center temperatures, the industry organization ASHRAE recommends an optimal operational temperature range between 64.4°F (18°C) and 80.6°F (27°C) – a range typically perceived as mild to warm by humans.

Nonetheless, recent trends in data centers are contributing to higher operating temperatures. Key among these trends are increased power density and the implementation of hot aisle containment strategies:

  • Power Density: as more powerful servers are packed into the same or smaller spaces, the power density (amount of power consumed per square foot of floor space) is increasing, leading to more heat being generated within the same data center space. A growing share of hyperscale data centers, operated by companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS), and workloads driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are pushing power densities in data centers higher. Consequently, this can lead to ambient temperatures in server racks exceeding 80°F (26.7°C)
  • Hot Aisle Containment: this strategy focuses on encapsulating the hot exhaust air emitted from servers within enclosed hot aisles of data centers. This arrangement ensures the separation of this heated air from the cooler air circulating in the rest of the data center, leading to higher temperatures within the contained hot aisle section of a data center – often reaching more than 100°F (37.8°C)

With temperatures increasing due to greater power density and hot aisle containment strategies, more heat is inevitably generated within data centers. This extra heat not only poses challenges to ventilation and cooling systems, but also raises the risk of reaching ignition points for the various combustible equipment and materials, termed ‘fuel’, found within data centers.

Oxygen and Chemical Chain Reaction – Data Center Fires

Oxygen is an essential component in data center fires, serving as a key element in the chemical chain reaction of combustion, one of the four prerequisites for a fire to occur. Combustion is the rapid reaction between fuel (in this case, equipment and materials in the data center) and oxygen, leading to the production of heat, light, and various byproducts. This cycle sustains the fire as long as there is enough fuel and oxygen available.

When electronic equipment and materials combust, they generate a variety of gases, which are referred to collectively as smoke. This smoke includes corrosive gases like hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and hydrogen chloride (HCl). These gases are not only harmful to humans but also extremely damaging to a server’s printed circuit boards.

Causes of Data Center Fires

The main causes of data center fires generally fall into the following categories: electrical failures, overheating lithium-ion batteries, inadequate maintenance, and human error.

Electrical Failures

Electrical failures are the most common cause of data center fires. These failures can stem from overloaded circuits, malfunctioning equipment, or defective wiring, each capable of generating sufficient heat to ignite a fire when in proximity to combustible materials.

Among these failures, two phenomena stand out due to their propensity to instigate fires:

  • Electrical Surges: brought on by sudden and excessive voltage increases, electrical surges can lead to circuit overloads, generating intense heat. Should such surges infiltrate equipment not built to withstand high voltages, such as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), the risk of sparking a fire elevates
  • Arc Flashes: these are electrical discharges provoked by low-impedance connections within the electrical system. The high-intensity flash produced during an arc flash can easily ignite surrounding materials and equipment, especially in environments rich in fuel sources, such as data centers

Lithium-ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries, utilized for backup power in data center uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, can pose a significant fire risk due to their high energy density. These lithium-ion batteries are often installed in racks and embedded within rack-mounted UPS systems to ensure backup power during a main power failure. As such, they are frequently positioned near the servers that they are designed to protect. In certain hyperscale data centers, lithium-ion batteries may be stored in designated rooms housing extensive battery banks, which are employed to store excess renewable energy derived from wind and solar farms.

Should these batteries overheat or suffer damage, they may enter a state known as thermal runaway, a scenario in which a temperature increase triggers a self-perpetuating reaction, escalating the temperature further. In such circumstances, batteries may ignite and even explode, leading to an uncontrollable spread of fire between cells, across battery packs, and potentially even battery cabinets, particularly if spaced inappropriately.

Given their smaller footprint, cost-effectiveness, ease of maintenance, and extended lifespan, lithium-ion batteries are increasingly prevalent in data centers, compared to lead-acid batteries. However, it is worth noting that lithium-ion batteries present a more substantial fire risk than their lead-acid counterparts, which implies a potential increase in severe data center fire incidents.

Inadequate Maintenance

Failing to regularly clean and maintain key components like servers, power supplies, and cooling systems can lead to overheating and subsequent fire incidents in data centers. Dust, particularly conductive dust, can accumulate on these components, potentially causing short circuits or overheating that might ignite a fire.

Human Error

Mistakes made during critical tasks such as the installation of lithium-ion batteries, maintenance of HVAC systems, or daily operational procedures can result in conditions conducive to a fire in data centers. This can range from improperly connecting electrical or data cables, to not following established safety protocols such as maintaining adequate clearance around heat-emitting equipment.

Examples of Major Data Center Fires

Over the time period from 2014 to 2023, Dgtl Infra has identified 22 instances of major data center fires or explosions. These unfortunate incidents involved companies and buildings such as Khawaja Tower, Windstream, Proximus, Digital Realty, Global Switch, Maxnod, Cyxtera, QTS, Comcast, SK Group, Google, Equinix, Cyber Data Center International, WebNX, OVHcloud, Telstra, AT&T, Markley, Colt DCS, BT Group, Apple, and Samsung.

Company InvolvedDateLocationRegion
Khawaja TowerOctober 2023Dhaka, BangladeshAsia-Pacific
WindstreamSeptember 2023Lincoln, NebraskaU.S.
ProximusAugust 2023Brussels, BelgiumEurope
Digital RealtyMay 2023Los Angeles, CaliforniaU.S.
Global SwitchApril 2023Paris, FranceEurope
MaxnodMarch 2023Ain, FranceEurope
Cyxtera TechnologiesFebruary 2023Boston, MassachusettsU.S.
QTS Data CentersNovember 2022Piscataway, New JerseyU.S.
Comcast CorporationNovember 2022Centennial, ColoradoU.S.
SK Group / KakaoOctober 2022Seoul, South KoreaAsia-Pacific
GoogleAugust 2022Council Bluffs, IowaU.S.
EquinixJanuary 2022Madrid, SpainEurope
Cyber Data CenterDecember 2021Jakarta, IndonesiaAsia-Pacific
WebNXApril 2021Ogden, UtahU.S.
OVHcloudMarch 2021Strasbourg, FranceEurope
TelstraAugust 2020London, EnglandEurope
AT&TOctober 2018Richardson, TexasU.S.
Markley GroupJune 2018Boston, MassachusettsU.S.
Colt DCSJuly 2015Milan, ItalyEurope
BT GroupJune 2015Belfast, Northern IrelandEurope
AppleMay 2015Mesa, ArizonaU.S.
SamsungApril 2014Seoul, South KoreaAsia-Pacific

Khawaja Tower – Dhaka, Bangladesh Data Center Fire (2023)

In October 2023, a significant fire broke out in the Khawaja Tower located on Bir Uttam AK Khandaker Road in the Mohakhali neighborhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fire, which lasted for over 15 hours before being extinguished, started on the 12th and 13th floors of the building. The tower, standing 14 stories tall, hosted two major data centers operated by NRB Telecom and Dhakacolo. These facilities were vital, connecting to multiple internet gateways and exchanges and servicing hundreds of internet service providers (ISPs).

The fire inflicted varying degrees of damage. While some equipment was burned, other parts remained mostly unscathed. Damaged cables and a necessary electricity cut-off resulted in service disruptions. As a direct outcome of this incident, approximately 40% of Bangladesh’s 12.1 million broadband users faced outages. Additionally, close to 20% of the nation’s 120 million mobile internet subscribers experienced disruptions in both data and voice services.

Regrettably, the fire wasn’t just detrimental to equipment and services. It claimed three lives and resulted in at least 10 injuries. The root cause of the blaze has not been officially stated. However, the situation was exacerbated by the presence of numerous combustible materials and an apparent lack of a comprehensive safety plan for the building, despite the presence of some fire extinguishers.

Windstream – Lincoln, Nebraska Data Center Fire (2023)

In September 2023, a fire broke out at Windstream’s data center located at 1440 M St in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, resulting in $200,000 worth of damage. The incident severely disrupted 911 services in multiple Southeast Nebraska counties for several hours during the night.

Windstream Lincoln Nebraska Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Downtown Lincoln Association.

The fire originated from a water leak in the electrical control room, triggering a minor explosion. This explosion caused a transformer to short-circuit, disabling power to three switches in the building. Although an on-site backup generator briefly restored power, it too malfunctioned, leaving the data center dependent on its battery backup.

Faced with these challenges, Windstream’s technical team had to shut down one of the three switches, affecting 911 connectivity in Nebraska’s Adams, Gage, Otoe, and Saunders Counties. Other counties in the Southeast region might have also experienced service interruptions. Fortunately, there were no reported injuries. Firefighters successfully put out the fire using dry chemicals and CO2 extinguishers.

Proximus – Brussels, Belgium Data Center Fire (2023)

In August 2023, a fire erupted at the Netcenter Evere data center, which is operated by Proximus, Belgium’s largest wireless carrier and fixed broadband provider. Located in Evere, a northeastern suburb of Brussels at Rue Carli, 1140, the facility experienced a significant disruption.

Proximus Brussels Belgium Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Proximus.

Firefighters managed to control the fire within 90 minutes, allowing the data center to resume normal operations. However, the incident led to a temporary outage that affected emergency phone services. Specifically, the emergency numbers 112 – for firefighters and ambulances – and 101 – for police – were unavailable for less than 30 minutes. Proximus is currently investigating the cause of the outage.

Digital Realty – Los Angeles, California Data Center Fire (2023)

In May 2023, Digital Realty, one of the world’s largest data center providers, experienced a significant fire incident at its Los Angeles LAX12 facility, located at 2260 East El Segundo Boulevard in El Segundo, California. The fire, which originated in a specific rack, prompted a shutdown of two suites within the two-story, 132,000 square foot facility, which supports 7.45 megawatts of UPS power capacity. This incident considerably disrupted the data center’s operations. One suite was restored within hours, however another remained out of commission for several days.

Digital Realty Los Angeles California Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Digital Realty.

The fire triggered the sprinkler system in the colocation space, resulting in water damage to many servers. This damage was particularly severe for Evocative, a managed services provider that operates under the brand Krypt and holds assets from the former VPLS and INAP banners. Despite ongoing investigations, the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined.

Global Switch – Paris, France Data Center Fire (2023)

In April 2023, Global Switch, a major data center operator in Europe and Asia-Pacific, experienced a fire at its Paris East and Paris West data centers located at 7-9 Rue Petit in Clichy, France, a suburb in the northwestern region of Paris. The facility, which consists of six floors with 555,612 square feet (51,618 square meters) of gross space and 59 MVA of current and planned capacity, faced disruption for 4 hours and 30 minutes due to a fire in its battery room.

Global Switch Paris France Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Global Switch.

The fire was triggered by a water leak resulting from a cooling system water pump failure, which was linked to an issue in the data center’s air conditioning system. The water from the leak infiltrated the battery room, instigating a fire upon contact with the battery components.

While the fire was contained to the battery room, the incident resulted in significant data loss for Google Cloud’s europe-west-9 region, which resides in Global Switch’s Paris data centers. This region suffered an infrastructure failure that affected several Google Cloud services, particularly in the europe-west9-a zone. Initially, the water leak had only affected a part of europe-west9-a, but a subsequent fire required the entire zone, along with a portion of the europe-west9-c zone, to be temporarily powered down.

Maxnod – Ain, France Data Center Fire (2023)

In March 2023, a fire occurred at the Maxnod Datacenter, operated by Adeli, in Saint-Trivier-sur-Moignans, Ain, France. Spanning 8,611 square feet (800 square meters), the facility sustained significant damage that necessitated a complete reconstruction of the building. The equipment within the data center was also completely destroyed.

Maxnod Ain France Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Twitter @huguesdelamure.

Regrettably, one firefighter sustained minor injuries during the incident. The cause of the fire was traced back to the battery room of the facility’s solar panels, believed to have been ignited by a lithium-ion battery. The fire also resulted in extensive damage to the data center’s fiber optic cables, impacting local fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services.

Cyxtera – Boston, Massachusetts Data Center Fire (2023)

In February 2023, Cyxtera Technologies, a retail colocation provider, experienced a fire at its Boston BOS1 Campus located at 580 Winter Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. The data center, which boasts 16 megawatts of utility power across 40,500 square feet of raised floor space, underwent a disruption that lasted several hours.

Cyxtera Boston Massachusetts Data Center Fire 2023
Source: Waltham Newswatch.

The incident originated from an electrical arc flash in the data center’s power room, which caused an explosion that destroyed a battery cabinet. The force of the explosion was such that it blew the doors off the battery cabinet. Smoke was subsequently reported inside the data center, traced back to the damaged electrical equipment.

Although the building structure remained undamaged, the resulting smoke and explosion prompted the local fire department to enforce a shutdown of power at the site for safety reasons, leading to an evacuation of the building. This power cut inadvertently caused data loss for Oracle’s NetSuite service, a customer of Cyxtera, with approximately 30 minutes of data being lost during the recovery process.

QTS – Piscataway, New Jersey Data Center Fire (2022)

In November 2022, QTS Data Centers faced a fire incident at their Piscataway Data Center located at 101 Possumtown Road in Piscataway, New Jersey. Notably, the fire was reported not in the operational data center but on the roof of a two-story, 90,000 square foot data center extension, which was under construction at the time.

QTS Piscataway New Jersey Data Center Fire 2022
Source: New Market Fire Department.

The incident occurred when several pallets of roofing material, stored on the roof for future installation, caught fire. The blaze was successfully extinguished within about two hours. Importantly, the fire did not cause any damage to the data center’s equipment, and it did not disrupt data center operations or cause any customer disruption. Furthermore, no injuries were reported as a result of the fire.

Comcast – Centennial, Colorado Data Center Fire (2022)

In November 2022, Comcast Corporation experienced a fire at their data center located at 7059 S Potomac Street in Centennial, Colorado. The fire originated in the generator room, which houses essential equipment, but was contained within this area, preventing extensive damage to the main data center building, a 60,000-square-foot facility supporting 2.7 megawatts of IT load.

The fire caused several hours of disruption, impacting mainly Comcast’s internal applications. Fortunately, no casualties or injuries were reported. Despite the disruption, the cause of the fire was not reported, highlighting the often complex and opaque nature of data center fire incidents.

SK Group / Kakao – Seoul, South Korea Data Center Fire (2022)

In October 2022, the SK C&C data center operated by SK Group, one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, was disrupted for approximately eight hours due to a fire. The incident occurred at the 720,105-square foot (66,900-square meter) facility located in the Pangyo Techno Valley in Seongnam-si, near the capital city of Seoul, South Korea.

The fire reportedly started in a battery room in the building’s third basement and is believed to have been triggered by a lithium-ion battery.

This data center fire significantly impacted SK Group’s own systems, as well as the IT infrastructure supporting Kakao, a South Korean internet company. In particular, the incident affected KakaoTalk, the most popular messaging and single sign-on platform in South Korea. As a result, KakaoTalk had to shut down 32,000 servers, causing disruptions to their integrated mobile payment system, transport application, gaming platform, and music service, all of which are used by millions.

Additionally, the outage affected Naver, the leading internet platform in South Korea, known as the country’s equivalent to Google. Naver reported disruptions to its online search, shopping, media, and blogging services.

Despite the extensive disruption from the data center fire, no casualties or injuries were reported.

Google – Council Bluffs, Iowa Data Center Explosion (2022)

In August 2022, a serious incident occurred at Google’s Council Bluffs Southlands data center located at 10410 Bunge Avenue in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This incident, resulting from an internal error, involved an electrical arc flash that led to an explosion at a substation near the main data center building, which spans a massive 2.9 million square feet.

Google Council Bluffs Iowa Data Center Explosion 2022
Source: Google.

At the time of the arc flash, three electricians were working on an electrical box. The sudden event caused severe burns to all three workers, who were immediately transported to the hospital. Although an arc flash is not technically a fire, it can generate enough heat to ignite materials, potentially leading to a fire.

READ MORE: Google Cloud’s Data Center Locations

Equinix – Madrid, Spain Data Center Fire (2022)

In January 2022, Equinix, the world’s largest data center provider, faced a fire incident at its Equinix MD2 IBX data center, situated at Calle Valgrande 6 in Alcobendas, Spain, a suburb in the northeastern region of Madrid. The incident resulted in a brief interruption in power supply, but fortunately, no injuries were reported.

The fire reportedly began in a basement area where the data center’s transformers are located. This caused an accumulation of smoke in the power room, which then filled the facility’s garage area. Despite the disruption, the physical structure, comprising 53,378 square feet (4,959 square meter) of colocation space, remained largely unharmed, and normal operations were soon resumed.

Cyber Data Center – Jakarta, Indonesia Data Center Fire (2021)

In December 2021, Cyber Data Center International (CDCI) encountered a significant fire at its data center, located on the second floor of the Cyber Building 1, at Jl. Kuningan Barat Raya No.8 in the sub-district of Mampang Prapatan in South Jakarta, Indonesia. The fire reportedly originated from an explosion of certain servers, suspected to be due to a short circuit. This incident caused substantial physical damage to both the interior and exterior of the building.

Tragically, two people lost their lives due to smoke inhalation during the incident. The fire disruption extensively affected various services in Indonesia that were run out of the facility, including those of stockbrokers, digital applications and payments, hosting services, game portals, internet service providers (ISPs), news sites, and government services, demonstrating the wide-ranging impacts of such incidents on the digital ecosystem.

WebNX – Ogden, Utah Data Center Fire (2021)

In April 2021, WebNX’s Ogden Data Center located at 119 N 600 W in Ogden, Utah, underwent a lengthy outage caused by a catastrophic failure in an emergency backup generator, which caught fire during a city-wide power disruption. The incident took place when the data center’s backup generators were automatically activated to compensate for the City of Ogden’s power loss. Unfortunately, one of these generators malfunctioned and caught fire, triggering the data center’s fire suppression protocol.

WebNX Ogden Utah Data Center Fire 2021
Source: WebNX.

The fire caused emergency services to cut power to the entire 100,000 square foot facility, leading to a full shutdown of the data center and prolonged outages for its customers, which included Ogden City and other service providers. While the fire did not inflict any direct damage on customer servers, some servers did incur water damage as firefighters battled to extinguish the generator fire.

OVH – Strasbourg, France Data Center Fire (2021)

In March 2021, a catastrophic fire broke out at one of OVHcloud’s four data centers in Strasbourg, France. The blaze completely destroyed the European cloud service provider’s SBG2 data center, a 2-megawatt facility that housed around 30,000 servers. It also caused partial damage to the neighboring SBG1 facility, which was subsequently decommissioned and dismantled.

The data center fire spread rapidly within minutes, leading to the total destruction of SBG2’s main server, with backups also lost in the blaze. The incident, which is estimated to have cost OVHcloud over €105 million, affected approximately 65,000 customers. Many experienced significant service interruptions, and the incident resulted in permanent data loss for numerous companies.

The fire originated in an energy room that housed electrical equipment. Reports indicated that a failure in one of the two uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems was the cause. More specifically, lithium-ion batteries and inverters used in the UPS were implicated in igniting the fire. These components were further heated by the UPS fire, resulting in a rapid spread of the flames.

The fire escalated quickly due to several contributing factors. These included the lack of an automatic fire extinguishing system, a delayed electrical cutoff, and a building design that inadvertently facilitated the fire’s spread. Furthermore, the building’s wooden ceiling, rated to resist fire for only an hour, and two inner courtyards acting as fire chimneys exacerbated the situation.

As a consequence of the fire, OVHcloud was required to cut off electricity to the entire site, which led to the closure of all four Strasbourg data centers. Fortunately, no human or bodily injuries were reported.

Telstra – London, UK Data Center Fire (2020)

In August 2020, Telstra, Australia’s largest wireless carrier and fixed broadband provider, experienced a fire incident at their London Hosting Centre (LHC) located at 6 Greenwich View Place at the Isle of Dogs in London, England. The LHC, which contains 1,800 racks and comprises 114,248 square feet of white space, suffered damage in a small part of a supply room on the third floor due to the fire.

Telstra London UK Data Center Fire 2020
Source: Cherryman.

The fire was initiated by a faulty uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which caused the circuit breakers connected to the bus bar to trip. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported in connection with the incident.

AT&T – Richardson, Texas Data Center Fire (2018)

In October 2018, AT&T faced several hours of service disruption due to an undetermined electrical fire at their switching station located at 1666 Firman Drive in Richardson, Texas. The electrical fire, confined to an electrical room within the 54,024-square-foot facility, inflicted significant damage on both the primary and backup electrical systems.

The fire started at a power switch, impacting the AT&T U-verse service for customers throughout the North Texas area. Despite the disruption and equipment damage, no casualties or injuries were reported in the incident.

Markley – Boston, Massachusetts Data Center Fire (2018)

In June 2018, Markley Group’s 1 Summer Street data center in Boston, Massachusetts experienced a small fire. The incident occurred on the 8th floor of the building, where the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems were housed, in the 920,000 square foot facility.

Markley Boston Massachusetts Data Center Fire 2018
Source: Twitter @drb2991 and @aaron_kravitz.

The fire triggered the building’s sprinkler system, leading to rooms containing UPS systems and large batteries filling with electrical arcs, smoke, and water. The fire affected multiple carriers in the Boston area, including Windstream and CenturyLink, as well as a data center operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Colt DCS – Milan, Italy Data Center Fire (2015)

In July 2015, Colt Data Centre Services (DCS) experienced a fire at their Milan Lancetti Data Centre located at Viale Vincenzo Lancetti, 23 in Milan, Italy. The incident, caused by overheating in the building’s power infrastructure and utility power supply outages, resulted in a disruption that lasted approximately nine hours.

Colt DCS Milan Italy Data Center Fire 2015
Source: Gazzetta Adda.

The facility, which boasts a power capacity of 4 MVA (megavolt amperes) across 17,222 square feet (1,600 square meters), underscores the complexities of maintaining fire safety in data centers.

BT – Belfast, Northern Ireland Data Center Fire (2015)

In June 2015, BT Group experienced a fire at the BT Telephone House, located at 45-75 May Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The incident occurred due to an accident affecting the power supply to a communications room on the fourth floor. Although the fire was extinguished swiftly, service providers based at the site faced several hours of challenges as they sought to restore operations.

BT Belfast Northern Ireland Data Center Fire 2015
Source: BBC News NI.

In line with established procedures, the power was quickly cut off when the fire was detected. However, this action resulted in damage to the power distribution units (PDUs) when power was suddenly restored. PDUs, devices that distribute electrical power to servers and other IT equipment in a data center, are susceptible to tripping when subjected to abrupt or excessive power changes. Despite the connectivity and power loss, the data center floors were not directly affected by the fire.

Apple – Mesa, Arizona Data Center Fire (2015)

In May 2015, a fire incident occurred at Apple’s operationally-controlled Mesa, Arizona Data Center located 3740 S Signal Butte Road in the Greater Phoenix area. This data center was a former factory of GT Advanced Technologies, one of Apple’s suppliers who had filed for bankruptcy.

The data center, which spans 1.3 million square feet, experienced a fire on its roof. The fire was traced back to the solar panels on the roof, highlighting the risks associated with the integration of renewable energy sources in data center infrastructure.

READ MORE: Apple’s Data Center Locations – Enabling Growth in Services

Samsung – Seoul, South Korea Data Center Fire (2014)

In April 2014, a fire outbreak at Samsung’s SDS ICT Gwacheon Center, located at 1-21 Byeolyang-dong in Gwacheon, South Korea, near the capital city of Seoul, caused considerable disruption and damage. The fire originated on the 4th floor, causing the interior and exterior of the building to burn.

The outage, which lasted several hours, led to disruptions across several Samsung services. These included Samsung.com, Samsung Pay, and devices like Smart TVs that relied on Samsung’s servers for operation. One staff member suffered minor injuries from falling debris as the fire caused portions of the four-story building’s façade to fall off.

Fire Protection in Data Centers

Fire protection in data centers refers to the comprehensive set of measures, systems, and practices implemented to prevent, detect, and suppress fires within a data center. In the following sections, we will detail the three categories of fire protection systems:

  • Fire Prevention in Data Centers: these are methods and technologies used to minimize the likelihood of a fire starting
  • Fire Detection in Data Centers: involves technologies that aim to identify fires at the earliest possible stage
  • Fire Suppression in Data Centers: once a fire is detected, these systems work to control and extinguish it

Fire Prevention in Data Centers

The goal of fire prevention in data centers is to protect the crucial data and IT equipment stored and operated within these facilities from fire hazards, as well as to delay the spread of fire from an adjacent space to ensure human safety. This allows time for orderly evacuation and gives firefighters an opportunity to contain the fire, preventing extensive damage.

Strategies for Fire Prevention in Data Centers

Several specific strategies exist for fire prevention in data centers to ensure optimal protection and business continuity:

  • Housekeeping Practices: implementing stringent housekeeping practices, such as keeping the data center clean from dust and free from flammable clutter, can mitigate accidental fires. This includes the removal of non-essential furnishings, paper, or other combustible materials that pose fire risks
  • Temperature Monitoring: employing real-time temperature monitoring to control heat, one of the primary instigators of fire, is crucial. Ensuring proper airflow and the maintenance of HVAC systems contributes to a safer environment
  • Battery Rooms: designing the data center to house lithium-ion batteries in a separate room is advisable. The layout should also consider distancing battery cabinets to prevent or limit the spread of a major fire. Constructing fire-resistant compartments in battery rooms further mitigates the risk of facility-wide outages
  • Regular Maintenance: regular inspections and maintenance of critical infrastructure, such as electrical equipment and HVAC systems, are vital. This proactive approach reduces the risk of electrical fires triggered by faulty or aging equipment
  • Proper Cable Management: instituting a cable management plan for Ethernet, fiber optic, power, and patch cables can prevent electrical shorts and fires. This includes organizing cables neatly, conducting regular inspections, and timely replacement of frayed or damaged cables

Fire Detection in Data Centers

The primary objective of fire detection in data centers is to promptly identify and respond to fire-related incidents, thereby mitigating risks associated with costly equipment damage, irretrievable data loss, and significant operational disruption. These systems also prioritize personnel safety, alerting individuals to potential fire hazards promptly to enable swift evacuation or appropriate action.

Upon detection of heat, smoke, or fire within a data center, the fire detection system triggers a connected fire alarm system. Occupants of the facility are then alerted via audible alarms and visual signals, with the system often designed to automatically notify emergency services. These early warning signals are crucial, as they can identify a fire incident in a data center before it escalates into a life-threatening situation or causes significant infrastructure damage.

Types of Fire Detection Systems

Data centers employ an array of fire detection systems, each with their unique capabilities, benefits, and potential limitations, to ensure comprehensive fire protection.

Smoke Detectors

Smoke detectors, particularly spot-type photoelectric or ionization smoke detectors, are the frontline defense in many data centers. Their popularity stems from their affordability, reliability, and adjustable sensitivity levels. However, these detectors might not detect a fire originating from electrical equipment promptly enough to prevent damage due to their initial low sensitivity level. Furthermore, their performance may deteriorate over time as dirt and dust accumulate on the sensor.

Heat Detectors

Heat detectors can be an effective alternative or complement to smoke detectors, especially in data center areas where smoke detection is impractical, like particularly dusty environments or rooms with below-freezing temperatures. These devices are calibrated to detect a swift rise in temperature, a hallmark of a fire.

Air Sampling Systems

Air sampling systems, also known as aspirating smoke detectors, offer a highly effective approach to early fire detection in data centers. By actively drawing in and analyzing air for combustion particles, these systems often provide early warnings of a fire. These systems use one of three detection methods: standard fire detection (SFD), early warning fire detection (EWFD), and very early warning fire detection (VEWFD). In data center applications, the latter two – EWFD or VEWFD – are usually preferred. The term VESDA, which stands for Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus, is now used generically to refer to all air sampling smoke detection systems.

Gas Detectors

Gas detectors play a critical role in identifying gases that could signify a fire risk, such as hydrogen emitted by certain types of batteries during the charging process. Although battery rooms in data centers are typically well-ventilated to prevent hydrogen buildup, the installation of additional hydrogen detection can offer an extra layer of safety.

Video Detection

Video detection systems, leveraging advanced video analytics, can detect fire signs in real-time, such as visible smoke or specific flame colors. By providing this additional layer of detection, video systems enhance the robustness of a data center’s fire detection strategy.

Fire Suppression in Data Centers

The goal of fire suppression in data centers is to promptly contain and neutralize fires to prevent the loss of data, damage to costly hardware and infrastructure, and to ensure uninterrupted service. Moreover, fire suppression aims to safeguard human life by reducing the risk of fire-related injuries and fatalities. If a fire grows beyond the occupants’ ability to control, an automatic fire suppression system can extinguish or control the fire until the fire department arrives and completes the extinguishment.

Types of Fire Suppression Systems

Fire suppression systems are vital for ensuring safety and protection in data centers. They utilize a range of methods, including water-based sprinklers, gas-based systems, inerting agents, and chemical extinguishers. Despite the range of options, data center operators frequently favor gas-based fire suppression systems due to their proven effectiveness in server rooms and around sensitive electrical equipment.

Wet Pipe Sprinkler Systems

Building codes often mandate wet pipe sprinkler systems based on the building’s size and function. Water, being readily available, relatively inexpensive, and excellent at absorbing heat, has been a traditional choice for fire suppression. However, water’s inherent electrical conductivity introduces the risk of damaging active IT equipment, making it less suitable for data centers.

Dry Pipe Pre-action Systems

Dry pipe pre-action systems are a fire suppression option that mitigates the risk of accidental water discharge, thus protecting sensitive electronics in data centers. Unlike wet pipe systems, these systems use pressurized air or nitrogen, only releasing water when a separate fire detection system triggers the pre-action valve. This design minimizes accidental water damage to electronic equipment, making it well-suited for data centers.

Water Mist Systems

Water mist systems, a modern alternative to traditional sprinkler systems, cause much less water damage. They operate by atomizing water to a droplet size of no larger than 0.04 inches (1 millimeter). This results in efficient heat transfer between hot gases and water droplets, absorbing a large amount of heat with a relatively small amount of water. Despite their effectiveness in data halls, equipment rooms, subfloors, and in-cabinet fire suppression systems, any accumulated water mist could potentially harm electronic equipment.

Clean Agent Systems

Clean agent systems disperse a gaseous fire suppressant that leaves no residue and does not harm electronic equipment. Popular agents include FM-200 and Novec 1230, which disrupt the combustion process by displacing oxygen, removing heat, and breaking the chain reaction of fire. Their properties, such as being electrically non-conductive and leaving no residue, make them an attractive option for data center fire suppression.

Inert Gas Systems

Inert gas systems lower the oxygen level in the room to a point where fire cannot burn, while still maintaining a breathable atmosphere for humans. These systems primarily use gases such as argon, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, with Argonite and Inergen being popular blends in inert gas systems. They are particularly effective in battery energy storage systems where water damage and post-fire cleanup are significant concerns.

Other Fire Suppression Systems

Additional fire suppression systems, such as Emergency Power Off (EPO) systems and handheld fire extinguishers play a crucial role in data centers. An EPO system can shut off electricity to the data center during a fire, preventing the spread of electrical fires and safeguarding the environment for firefighters. On the other hand, portable fire extinguishers can serve as the initial response to a small, controllable fire. Extinguishers containing clean agents or carbon dioxide are most common in data centers.

Mary Zhang covers Data Centers for Dgtl Infra, including Equinix (NASDAQ: EQIX), Digital Realty (NYSE: DLR), CyrusOne, CoreSite Realty, QTS Realty, Switch Inc, Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM), Cyxtera (NASDAQ: CYXT), and many more. Within Data Centers, Mary focuses on the sub-sectors of hyperscale, enterprise / colocation, cloud service providers, and edge computing. Mary has over 5 years of experience in research and writing for Data Centers.

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