Pipeline control rooms uncovered, part 2: safety and vigilance around the clock

In part one of our ‘control rooms uncovered’ series, we took you on a tour of a pipeline control room, exploring how control rooms manage and monitor data to keep pipelines safe, and the importance of constant, round-the-clock vigilance.

This week we’re getting the inside scoop on some of the systems in place to keep every control room online, all the time.

To find out how pipeline operators ensure that nothing slips past their monitoring equipment, or their controllers, we spoke with John Goossens, manager of Plains Midstream Canada’s Control Centre in Olds, Alberta.

Plains Midstream control centreJohn explained five of the most important techniques used in every effective control room:

#1 Staying alert

Control room operators often work 12-hour shifts, and it’s crucial they miss nothing, so keeping them alert is a top priority in every control room. John explained some of the measures used:

    • The operator’s schedule is run through a fatigue assessment tool (FAID) that identifies times when the controller may become susceptible to fatigue.
    • Fatigue mitigation measures like sit/stand consoles, lighting, temperature and fitness equipment  all help controllers stay alert.
    • Controllers are encouraged to disclose when they are fatigued, with no consequences. A plan is then put in place to help the controller with fatigue issues; if that doesn’t work, a different controller is brought in to monitor the pipeline.
    • Other techniques include fatigue training for both employees and family members, scheduling off-duty times to ensure enough time for at least eight hours of sleep and working minimal overtime.

#2 Alternate control centres

Every CEPA member company has an alternate control centre, because the ability to maintain control of the pipelines is crucial to safe operations.

“In the case of an emergency in the operating control centre, such as a fire, flood or severe weather, we need another spot to safely monitor the pipelines. In our case, it is located in a different town, in a separate building, on a separate power grid. Our alternate control centre has all the same equipment and back-up equipment that our operational control centre has. We operate out of the alternate control centre several times a year to train our controllers and to test the equipment,” he added.

#3 Back-up servers and communications systems

As with the control rooms themselves, critical equipment, such as Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems or communications systems, are also backed up, to eliminate single points of failure.

“We accomplish this by having two full, redundant servers at both the main control centre and the alternate control centre locations. We have different communication paths for our satellite system in case there are maintenance issues, and sites are backed up by radio or cell signal.”

#4 Training

Training is a huge part of all control centre operations. “A controller has to be trained and become operator-qualified for the specific console that he or she will be operating,” explained John. “This involves peer-to-peer training, class room training, training simulation and testing to show competency.”

“One testing method is the use of our training simulator,” continued John. “We can test the controllers on day-to-day operations, as well as abnormal operating conditions. For example we can practice process upsets or issues in a safe simulator environment, allowing a controller to train on proper response and learn from the experience.”

#5 Emergency exercises

Control centres and controllers participate in full-scale emergency exercises several times a year. These comprehensive exercises typically involve regulatory bodies (such as the Alberta Energy Regulator or National Energy Board) and several groups from local communities like the RCMP, Alberta Health Services and fire departments.

“These emergency exercises can be held over a two-day period,” said John. “The first day is spent training and the second day is spent working through an emergency scenario using the Incident Command System (ICS) and setting up a unified command with outside groups involved.”

John concluded by adding that he is proud of the collaboration and sharing of best practices amongst CEPA members. “Our industry is realizing that we can help one another to improve on safety practices through a collective effort,” he added.

Want to know more about control rooms? Check out ‘Pipeline control rooms and safety’ and ‘The inside story on pipeline leak detection’ to learn more about how pipeline companies use technology to make their operations safer.