Environment & Health Hong Kong Science & Technology

Faulty cables scandal: Official watchdogs admit relying on documentation, not tests

The fact that fire-resistant electricity cables sometimes fail to reach required standards is widely known to the government and the industry. However, FactWire found that government departments such as the Fire Services Department (FSD) merely check submitted documents and have yet to investigate further.

FactWire’s earlier report on Tuesday showed that fire-resistant cables found in On Tat Estate in Kwun Tong are below standard, will fail to supply electricity continuously under high temperature, and as a result impose fire safety risks.

On Tat public housing

On Tat Estate. Photo: FactWire.

The same manufacturer supplied its cables to an array of infrastructure, government building, public housing and private development projects. FactWire sent an email enquiry to the FSD on April 21, asking about fire-resistant cables failing to meet required standards, including whether there would be any follow-up action.

No reply was received from the FSD until April 26. In the morning of April 26, FactWire again emailed the FSD asking whether they had received complaints last year and urging them to reply.

FactWire excluded from press conference

The FSD replied to FactWire at 5:33pm the following day, stating that “we are currently handling relevant matters and would reply as soon as possible.” However, the FSD then held a press conference at 6pm, only inviting some media companies but excluding FactWire, and issued an email reply to FactWire at around 8:30pm.

FSD Assistant Director (Licensing and Certification) Leung Kwun-hong admitted during the press conference that the FSD had received complaints about fire-resistant cables failing to meet required standards, and the department began an investigation of the matter, including requesting the relevant suppliers to submit documents of certification.

The documents were verified upon investigation, and the department therefore concluded that the complaints were unsubstantiated.

electricity electric cables

Fire-resistant cables. Photo: FactWire.

Emil Yu Chen-on, director and general manager of Keystone Electric Wire and Cable Co., Limited – the supplier concerned in the complaints – told FactWire last week that the FSD and the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department had asked questions of Keystone, including taking statements, but they did not take samples for inspection.

The FSD had expressed concern about suppliers providing fire-resistant cables which failed to meet required standards, and stated that they would follow up the case, including checks on the model number, test reports and certificates of the product submitted by contractors.

But the FSD does not collect samples for inspection during the acceptance inspection procedure, and instead relies on quality evaluations conducted by certification bodies and applied by manufacturers.

Complaint letters

The complaint letters were directed to the FSD Licensing and Certification Command on April 12 last year and titled “Regarding bad-quality fire-resistant wire or cables” in Chinese.

The letters stated that the construction companies had discovered that fire-resistant cables on the market failed to meet required standards, and commissioned an international certification body to test three brands, which included cables manufactured by main local supplier Keystone.

The letter stated that the testing results were shocking because all cables failed the tests. “We therefore urge the department to investigate the matter.”

Fire-resistant cable electricity electric

Complaint letter to the FSD. Photo: FactWire.

The FSD replied on April 25 – 13 days later – that “we have received your letter, and the department is following up the case. We will inform you about the matter once we have more information.”

However, sources from the electronics industry who provided FactWire with the letters said the FSD did not follow up, and instead issued a notice to the industry around 20 days later, stressing that the fire-resistant cables used for fire service installation must meet required standards.

‘The complaints shocked the industry. Since it pointed to some popular brands, there may be quite a number of contractors and maintenance projects affected. We made no moves in the beginning to see whether the FSD would carry out investigations.”

“A few months later, the FSD merely issued a short notice telling contractors to check the certificates; everyone else was relieved and acted as if nothing had happened, and proceeded to purchase products from the suppliers with the so-called certification,” sources added.

The notice is located in the “FSI Contractors” page of the FSD website. Titled “Fire Resisting Cable for Fire Service Installations” and issued on May 16 last year, the notice was directed towards “The Association of Registered Fire Service Installation Contractors of Hong Kong Ltd.” and ran to about 200 words.

fire

Fire Services Department. File photo: Chong Fat via Wikimedia Commons.The notice says that “all Registered Fire Service Installations Contractors” are “required to observe the requirements of fire resisting cables for use in fire service installations (FSI) as stipulated in paragraph 5.15 of Part V of the Code of Practice for Minimum Fire Service Installations and Equipment (CoP) whenever fire resisting cables are used in FSI.”

“With a view to ensuring that fire resisting cables used in FSI are of the required product standard and quality, you are advised to purchase such cables from authorised agents or reputable suppliers as far as practicable.”

“It is the duty of the Registered Fire Service Installations Contractors to ensure that all fire resisting cables do conform to the standards specified in the CoP before carrying out any installation work.”

Housing Authority complaints

A building service employee who wished to remain anonymous provided FactWire with complaint emails made by anonymous parties from the industry to the Housing Authority (HA) as well as the response from the HA. The emails were sent on April 26 last year, with a fire-resistant cable test report attached, which was the same as the report attached to the complaint letters to the FSD.

The emails mentioned at least nine public housing projects under the HA, stating that “since the suppliers involved in the report are connected with a lot of maintenance projects under the HA, it shows that the unqualified cables are widely used in projects under the HA.”

 

Housing Authority

Housing Authority. File photo: Wpcpey via Wikimedia Commons.

“The HA should immediately recheck the fire service installations that were or are to be installed, and carry out relevant measures to make sure the cables fulfil the Hong Kong fire services regulations.”

The Acting Chief Building Services Engineer of HA replied on May 18, stating that among the cables mentioned in the test report, “only one of the brands mentioned was used in fire service installations of the mentioned public housing projects” and that “this kind of cable has to meet the international standards regulated by the FSD.”

The reply also stated that “the HA has procedures for officials to conduct inspections at different stages to ensure that the cables used in the projects are products tested and approved by international certification bodies.”

“After the occupation permit of the project is issued, the FSD would conduct acceptance inspections on fire service installations (including the fire-resistant cables) to ensure that all facilities fulfil relevant standards and operate smoothly. The inspection for these cables includes checking the certificates issued by international certification bodies, etc.”

Other departments

FactWire has sent emails to various government departments on their responses towards the cables failing to meet required standards, and what follow-up action or investigation they would carry out.

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Central Government Offices. File photo: GovHK.

Many departments replied stating that they would only check the certificates. The Housing Department (HD) replied that they are currently “carrying out investigations at different stages to ensure that the fire-resistant cables were already tested and approved by international certification bodies to fulfil the international standards regulated by the FSD.”

The Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) replied that “the department has made verification arrangements for the relevant documents, including the relevant product certificates and test reports, to ensure that fire-resistant cables meet the relevant requirements.”

Acting Director of Electrical and Mechanical Services Tai Tak-him confirmed with FactWire during an event on Tuesday that the government had received complaints about fire-resistant cables failing to meet required standards, but did not collect samples for testing.

“Usually we would not conduct tests, not only in Hong Kong but all around the world. There are so many products, do we test every one of them? And do we test products from different sellers as well? The cost would be very high for our society,” said Tai.

Tai questioned FactWire’s sample collection method. “The product is not designed for tests like this. You may damage the cable when you cut it out for testing. Even the simplest things, such as whether the insulator is unaffected, is hard to say. Actually no one ever does that.”

electricity cable electric

Fire-resistant cable tests carried out by FactWire. Photo: FactWire.

Tai added that the authorities would have taken action if the products were unsafe. However, the FSD is responsible for fire service systems while the EMSD is only responsible for providing assistance on construction-related matters to the FSD.

Contractor concerns

Since October last year, FactWire has contacted many FSI contractors to learn about the problems with the quality of fire-resistant cables. Most of the contractors declined to be interviewed, saying that they “do not know much about the current situation of the manufacture of such cables” and “would not comment on individual brands.”

A contractor who wished to remain anonymous admitted to FactWire that the industry knew about the complaints. However, “since the authority does not care, we do not distinguish between products of good or bad quality. As long as we contractors buy certified cables according to the regulations, we fulfil requirements of the FSD,” the contractor said.

Lam Chun-man, former Director of Fire Services of the Hong Kong Fire Services Department and spokesperson of the fire services sector of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, declined to comment on whether the FSD handled the matter properly.

He emphasised that “the industry should reflect the problems to the authorities if they discover them. If it is just like the incidents of excessive lead content in drinking water, the FSD should use appropriate methods to acquire samples and conduct tests.”

Fire Services Department

Lam Chun-man. Photo: FactWire.

When asked whether it is reasonable for the FSD not to follow up the complaints, Lam said “if companies (contractors or suppliers) are found to have problems in their products more than once, the authority should test the products.”

“However, the FSD can only do the best it can with limited resources, and there are so many fire service products in the market… Of course it is best to inform the industry and do more follow-up work.”

Loopholes?

A registered electrical worker told FactWire that there are loopholes in the existing acceptance inspection regulations of fire-resistant cables, which cannot keep substandard cables out of the market. The electrical worker told FactWire that “the situation is just like another version of the incidents of excessive lead in drinking water – the product certification is accepted as the ultimate proof.”

But for fire-resistant cables manufactured in large quantity and supplied in bulk, the manufacturer can get the product certification by sending the products of best quality for inspection, and then gain approval from the FSD and other departments.

“As for the rest of the products, even though their quality may not be ideal, it is hard for outsiders to find out. If there really are heartless businessmen selling bad-quality products with certification, the certification bodies, quality control authorities, contractors and users cannot prevent it from happening or avoid it.”

electricity electric

Fire-resistant cable tests carried out by FactWire. Photo: FactWire.

In a reply to FactWire, the Architectural Services Department (ArchSD) stated that under contract arrangements, the materials used in the building project would be supplied and installed by the contractor of the project.

The project engineer would then require the contractor to provide certification documents such as test reports or certificates, so as to ensure that the materials meet the requirements regulated by the department as stipulated in the contract.

When the materials reach the construction site, the ArchSD site supervisor would crosscheck relevant information, including the brand, model, certification documents and labels of the materials, to ensure they meet the standards.

Fire-resistant cables in general have to meet the standards regulated by the ArchSD as stated in the General Specification for Electrical Installation, and General Specification for Fire Service Installation, as well as the Codes of Practice for Minimum Fire Service Installations and Equipment and Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Installations and Equipment regulated by the FSD.

When evaluating the quality of fire-resistant cables, the contractor has to provide evaluation documents of the cables issued by the FSD or documents of approval issued by certification bodies, showing that the cables meet the required standards.

Architectural Services Department

Architectural Services Department. Photo: KennethTom via Wikimedia Commons.

According to a FSI contractor, although the FSD would earnestly carry out tests on the fire service installations, it puts focus on aspects of more importance, such as tests on whether the alarm system or water supply system is running smoothly, whether water is running normally, and checking materials installed in public spaces, such as metal pipes, fire-proof boards, etc.

The FSD would not carry out “destructive tests” in general, so it is difficult to check whether the fire service installations are supplying electricity and operating smoothly in case of fire accidents, the FSI contractor added. Contractors would only cross check whether the brand and model number matches with that stated on the material list.

Product category

According to documents about fire service installations and product certification issued by the FSD in 2007 and 2014, fire-resistant cables belong to the Fire Service Installations and Equipment and other products requiring FSD’s Prior Approval/Acceptance category.

This type of product has to be tested by product certification bodies to prove that it meets the required standards and can be put onto the list made available to the public and watchdog organisations.

An application can also be made to the FSD regarding this type of product for the FSD Licensing and Certification Command to conduct evaluation. The application should be accompanied by information such as test reports issued by certification bodies, certificates and product catalogues.

electricity eletric

Fire-resistant cables. Photo: FactWire.

According to the “List of accepted materials and equipment (Ventilating system)” issued by the FSD, the Keystone FR7211 cable (cross-sectional area ranging from 1.5 to 3.5 square millimetres), was approved by the FSD in July 2013. A re-inspection of the product will not be carried out until July 2018.

Lam said there is little the FSD can do as a regulatory department under the present system because it relies on product certification, so the situation of suppliers and contractors circulating bad-quality cables in the market can only be combated by market forces.

See also: Sub-standard electricity cables at Hong Kong public housing estate raise fire safety fears

Lam pointed out that since maintenance consultants or authorised persons may not possess professional knowledge of fire services, they could only delegate the work of ensuring the installations meet the required standards to FSI contractors.

The Fire Services (Amendment) Bill 2016 was passed in Legislative Council on March 1 this year. Lam urged the government to hasten the implementations of relevant subsidiary legislation and settle plans and regulatory laws for registered fire service engineers, “so that qualified professionals can strengthen performance on their gate-keeping duties to check whether the fire service installations meet the required standards.”

Faulty cables scandal: Official watchdogs admit relying on documentation, not tests