Control rooms, disaster prevention, safety, and reliability managers

I

It make sense to say that residents in urban high-rises who have their own demand response system for building-wide energy consumption are part and parcel of their “infrastructures.” So too residential water conservation becomes an important part of the wider water infrastructures’ reliability during peak-load times. We are also told that when it comes to our health care, each of us must be our own reliability manager.

Yet would we say the same of those households whose residences were blown up by an explosion of an underground natural gas line? Is each household its own reliability manager in that case as well, thereby becoming more than just a customer or consumer of infrastructure services in real time?

II

The question then becomes: What are the trigger or transition points from being consumers to being reliability managers?

One answer: Just as a major poem is always in excess of a single interpretation, the major management of a critical infrastructure is in excess of its technology—and “excess” is exactly the word. Its use here is antithetical to any claim that “excess capacity undermines technological and economic efficiency.”

An infrastructure’s reliability managers are like that top-most weathervane made to take lightning strikes outside so to protect the house underneath. Such protection is a public good, and is what we expect from leaders, regulators and policymakers.

But, remember, they include the very same politicians who believe there is not any major legislation or market reform that cannot be corrected once it has been implemented. Hot News Flash: They’re wrong.

III

Famously, the 9/11 Commission reported that before September 11, a FBI supervisor told his headquarters that he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” The report added, “The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen”.

Had such an interchange happened in the control rooms of major critical infrastructures like those for water and electricity, the chance of someone listening and responding would have been greater. An operator overhearing that kind of chatter might well have piped up and said, “Hold on a minute, is that as far-fetched as it sounds? What if. . .”

All across the United States and elsewhere, control room and support staff are probing “what-if” scenarios and pattern-based practices that elude others, including professional pundits and think tanks. Infrastructure operators, managers and support staff are saving millions, if not billions, of dollars by preventing disasters that would have happened if not prevented. (Again: No room for complacency here!)

IV

It should go without saying that the regulatory functions of the control room may well differ from the health and safety regulations and approaches needed elsewhere in the critical infrastructure. This means we should not expect there to be a single set of procedural or supervisory approaches that can apply throughout the entire organization, however committed it may be to service reliability.

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