Technology has granted the modern era capabilities to simplify operations, surpassing what was previously accepted as advanced notions of performance for more innovative solutions. It is a cycle of improvement and efficiency that has launched new applications for oil and gas operations, especially when it comes to safety and proficiency. More than a trend, third-party control rooms have proven to be reliable options for operators who are looking for cost savings that leverage control room expertise via enterprise-level infrastructure.
However, as is the way with most technological routes, not all control rooms are equal. This is true whether comparing internal operations, where individual operators have unique assets and procedures, or outsourced operations that require an advanced level of talent.
Operators will find that the cost savings of switching to a third-party control room is the most easily identifiable trait when comparing potential vendors; however, establishing who is capable of handling their operations without downtime, while maintaining federal and state compliance can be difficult. On the surface, third-party control rooms might look similar, but there are several factors that operators must consider when searching for the ideal host, many of which can have a major impact on overall cost as well as operational performance.
While simple on the surface, control room operations deeply thread together the intricacies of technology, security and compliance in a closely intertwined web of dependency. When it comes to outsourcing control room operations, simple is by no means preferred. An ideal candidate third-party control room must achieve a myriad of requirements and designations, many of which are necessitated by the significance of the industry but also by the severity of incident-causing oversights.
Even as a term, control room operations encompasses several areas of expertise, each of which comes together for a ballet of targeted actions to achieve a high level of safety. Taking on the responsibility of control room management from an operator means a third-party candidate must be prepared to succeed in every realm of control room operations.
Experience is a key component of control room operations, even more so when it comes to providing third-party services. Due to the variable nature of daily operations, control room personnel must not only understand procedures that are unique to particular operations but also industry-wide best practices and compliance requirements.
The need for experience does not stop at the console, however; ideal candidates for outsourcing control room operations provide expertise across the board when it comes to control room services, including experience with SCADA systems, IT infrastructure and other supporting systems, to cover all aspects of the interconnectedness of control room operations. This experience must cast a wide net encompassing industry knowledge as well to ensure that the candidate is not only experienced in the industry’s past but invested in learning and preparing for the industry’s technological future.
This broad level of experience is a must-have when it comes to anything beyond normal operations. Pipelines are variable by nature on a good day, and controllers face a variety of operational events on every shift.
Experience with normal operations is the baseline for running a console, but the necessity of advanced experience comes with
- Abnormal operating conditions that require an immediate diagnosis;
- Abnormal operations that threaten the safety of a high-consequence area; and
- Disaster response when unforeseen weather takes down a station in the middle of a transfer.
These are the scenarios that experienced controllers are not only trained to address but intimately understand when it comes to pipelines and their expected behavior.
Enterprise-Level Infrastructure and Systems
Candidates for outsourced control room operations must also provide access to enterprise-level hardware, software and systems that can support the needs of a 24x7 modern control room. Highly available data and thereby effective controller reactions often hinge on the quality of SCADA platforms, but a good deal of infrastructure and supporting software is required to support the heart of a SCADA-based control room.
Outsourcing providers must have the infrastructure to maintain multiple operators’ SCADA systems and correctly pull the necessary field data while also utilizing additional systems for administration. This becomes essential when dealing with the potential for failover and disaster recovery scenarios, when the slightest oversight in infrastructure preparedness can result in massive and unacceptable downtime.
Moreover, an ideal third-party control room has much more than the minimum technology available for operators. From data centers to servers to available bandwidth, there is a handful of basic elements that must be in place to run a simple control room, while a large-scale control room requires premium quality infrastructure, network architecture and design.
When it comes to third-party control rooms, this infrastructure must be designed to handle more than the average demands of oil and gas operations. Only skilled strategy and advanced technology can leverage the most suitable options, making room for a premier infrastructure that can support a single control center as it integrates hundreds of assets into a one location.
Proven Compliance Program
At first glance, outsourcing control room operations appears to be a concern of eyes on the console, but a great deal of the operations revolves around compliance.
The ideal candidate for outsourcing must have a tested compliance program already in place. From controller qualifications and hours of service calculations to deviation documentation, the minutiae of control room management compliance can be overwhelming but is a must in pipeline and personnel safety.
It is not enough to simply understand what the regulations dictate—a third-party control room must be experienced in interpreting the standards, recommended practices and regulations for individual operators and presenting this information accurately during audits.
Not all regulations are clear cut. While some provide requirements with crisp edges, others only give objectives and leave it up to the operator to determine the best method for achieving the goal. In this way, providing compliance support is much more than a matter of quoting regulations.
The ideal third-party control room must have a proven track record of interpreting what regulations require and translating that into a plan of action. It is not enough for management to have checked boxes on a self-audit; a third-party control room must be experienced in various forms of documentation, working with high-deviation situations, and know the ins and outs of state and federal audits. Only then can such a provider have the necessary understanding of how to implement procedures and processes to protect client assets while maintaining a high level of respectability in the safety arena.
Comprehensive Disaster Planning
While operators hope disasters side-step their operations, they are never entirely avoidable, making comprehensive disaster planning a prime segment of control room operations that must be at the forefront of an outsourcing service. Our industry has multiple influences that stretch to various corners of the market, and as we have experienced, isolated incidents can become global issues that affect operations with little warning.
From pandemics to hurricanes, control room operations must be able to respond quickly and appropriately, which requires a comprehensively built business continuity plan as well as a disaster recovery plan. While operators hope to avoid the fallout of disasters, a third-party control room must be prepared to face whatever comes its way without the threat of downtime.
Planning extends beyond the required manuals and documentation. A glance at federal regulations will give anyone an idea of what needs to be put into writing, but specific instances—such as planning beyond the initial transfer of responsibility during a hurricane—is what matters. Many factors can drive a control room into trouble, and a third-party control room must be prepared to handle such situations for every client, in some cases for multiple clients at the same time.
If a planned SCADA failover is met with blank screens at the backup control center, only a provider who has properly developed procedures for the situation can manage the scenario quickly without effects to production. Such comprehensive disaster planning should be well documented and available to clients. In the midst of a disaster is not the time to test if a third-party control center is actually as prepared as they say they are.
The ideal candidate for outsourcing control room operations is a streamlined service with transparent procedures. A candidate that lacks definition in its offerings and is not prepared to discuss and explain how it operates is one that is unprepared to address the needs and requirements of oil and gas operations.
No matter the size of the operation, a third-party control room must be aware of not only its responsibilities but how to provide them in a manner that provides quality operations while reducing overhead, making the transition an obvious choice for operators. These responsibilities should be communicated with clients to ensure that all parties are privy to processes, procedures and documentation to keep clients in the know and to avoid the potential of documentation duplication, which can cause a headache when it comes to audits.
Moreover, transparency becomes a necessity when it comes to legal responsibility. If clients have questions, a third-party control room provider should be not only willing to provide information but anticipate the need and be ready to do so without delay.
Third-Party Options for Control Room Operations
Third-party control rooms are a viable option for oil and gas operators, introducing safe and efficient operations along with streamlined approaches to efficient performance and monitoring, but operators must consider potential providers in light of what such providers know and how they show it.
From industry expertise and premier infrastructure design to proven compliance coupled with comprehensive disaster planning and transparent communication, the ideal third-party control room is at the top of its game in every situation simply because it understands the industry. It is the best option, however, because it understands the client.
Whitney Vandiver is a compliance specialist with NuGen Automation, where she specializes in control room management compliance and assists operators with state and federal CRM audits.
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