The social distancing mandates related to COVID-19 are creating a record-breaking wave of remote workers. Workers in critical infrastructure and smart cities are part of this wave, but providing access to relevant, actionable, and secure information from these critical industrial environments is a tough challenge. Operators and technicians, whether working remotely or in control rooms, need access to real-time data to keep their facilities operating smoothly and avoiding unplanned downtime, which is intolerable for both critical infrastructure and municipalities.
Most facilities are already working “close to the bone” in terms of staffing, and even a couple of sick workers can create a scheduling nightmare. Some sectors like the power industry have their critical workers camped out on site to ensure they don’t become infected, but this simply is not possible for all facilities.
End users and owner/operators are scrambling for ways that allow workers secure remote access to critical information from control systems. ARC Advisory Group recently sat down with executives from remote alarm notification supplier WIN-911 to talk about their offerings for remote management of critical alarms and notifications. We also discussed how we can securely empower this new generation of remote workers with the critical information they need to keep their plants and facilities running smoothly and without unplanned downtime.
Why Alarms and Alerts Are So Critical
Whether a system is controlling power generation, a wastewater treatment facility, or a traffic management system, alarms play a crucial role. Alarms indicate critical conditions requiring immediate operator intervention to prevent unplanned downtime and its consequences. Alerts are important as well, but the time element is less critical. While alarms can tell you of an abnormal condition that must be addressed immediately, alerts tell of you a condition that needs attention, but not right away. Both are critical to the uninterrupted and safe operation of any facility, plant, or pipeline.
Most alarms and alerts, however, are served up to the operator in a control room environment through the operator interface workstation. Typically, it’s done through whatever vendor-specific control system or human machine interface (HMI) software environment is in use. Many facilities have multiple types of systems that span several generations of software releases. This can make it difficult to provide a unified environment that is easy to manage in the control room environment. When it comes to pushing out a common interface for all to easily use on multiple platforms (including mobile devices and tablets), the problem can be even more complicated.
How WIN-911 Pioneered Remote Alarm and Event Notification
Based in Austin, Texas, WIN-911 has been around since 1974, and is arguably the first and largest supplier to offer remote alarm and event notification capabilities on multiple platforms, including mobile devices. The WIN-911 platform is installed at over 17,000 plants and facilities worldwide in 70 countries. It also sits on top of multiple supplier control system and HMI platforms and the company has strategic partnerships with leading automation partners including AVEVA/Wonderware, GE, and Rockwell Automation. Because of its vendor-neutral nature, connectivity, and integration with mobile devices, WIN-911 should be viewed as an Industrial IoT-based solution.
WIN-911 has a large installed base in manufacturing and process industries like oil & gas and manufacturing, but the bulk of its installations are in what ARC would classify as smart city and critical infrastructure applications like water & wastewater. The ten largest cities in America, for example, have WIN-911 installed in their water treatment facilities, as do thousands of other small- and medium-sized cities and municipalities.
Getting the Right Alarm Notification to the Right People at the Right Time
Alarms are role based. That means that certain worker roles need critical access to specific alarm, alert, and event notification. Maintenance technicians, for example, need access to alerts about devices in the operating environment that may need attention. Plant or facility operators require alarm information about abnormal conditions in the system.
WIN-911 has put a lot of thought into this issue and continuously fine-tuned its solution over many years. The drag-and-drop configuration engines enable customers to configure simple or complex notification policies based on alarm labels or specific worker roles. This includes maintenance technicians, system engineers, control room operators, plant managers, and response centers. WIN-911 enables customers to send out alarms and alerts based on equipment, alarm severity, time of day, groups or role, schedules, or other criteria they choose to configure.
Enabling Remote Workers in the Age of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unique challenges to anyone who must work in or manage a control room type of environment where operational data is essential. Unfortunately, these changes brought about by COVID-19 are not just temporary, and could be the “new normal,” at least for the next couple of years. Many control room environments are staffed to be lean. Many of the operators are also doing other tasks and can truly be considered “mobile operators.”
With COVID-19, personnel are becoming unexpectedly unavailable, requiring alarms and alerts to be routed to backup plant personnel. Personnel may also be unavailable for extended periods of time, and sites need solutions that enable fewer operators to monitor all system alarms. Perhaps most importantly, there is restricted personnel access to facilities, so solutions are needed that enable personnel to work remotely, including both internal personnel and outside contractors.
Effective Alarm Notification Reduces Downtime and Operational Costs
Downtime is very expensive and in many critical infrastructure applications, it simply cannot be tolerated. Remote alarm and event monitoring can help reduce downtime.
A key benefit of having an alarm notification system is that the alarms can be put in the hands of operators as soon as they occur, which can drastically reduce response times. Someone may not always be in the control room looking at HMI screens, so you need to ensure that operators are always aware of what is going on with their process, no matter where they are. Getting the right alarm to the right person at the right time — such as a pump power failure to an electrical technician — is critical to improving operational efficiencies and preventing downtime.
Having role-based access to alarms via a remote notification system also helps to eliminate alarm noise. Most control room operators are inundated with alarms, and it can be difficult to pick out the truly critical alarms based on your roles and responsibilities. Not everyone needs to know every alarm all the time. Subscribing only to the most important alarms for a particular worker’s role can significantly improve response times and reduce unplanned downtime.
Industrial IoT-based Solutions Offer Faster Installation and Typically Don’t Need to Tap the Capital Budget
In ARC’s view, the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing requirements for secure remote access to a greater volume of data is causing more end users to accelerate their digital transformation plans. Vendor- and platform-agnostic IoT-based solutions like WIN-911 can be deployed quickly on top of multiple legacy OT infrastructure platforms to collect and communicate alarm and event information from multiple control system platforms.
Like many Industrial IoT-based solutions for remote monitoring and operations, WIN-911 also has very low deployment costs compared to the installation of a new control system or alarm management system. According to the company, WIN-911 can typically be installed within a couple of days (including operator training) for between $2 and $5K. This also allows end users to purchase the solution from the operating budget without having to get approval from the capital budget.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, most third parties are excluded from visiting critical infrastructure plants and facilities to prevent the spread of the virus. Industrial IoT-based solutions like WIN-911 can often be deployed remotely with “touchless” installation and support.
Securing Remote OT Workers in Critical Infrastructure
The issue of security for remote workers has become apparent in the current pandemic. Cyber-attacks from phishing to infiltrating online meeting platforms have been a major concern, particularly for workers in critical infrastructure, smart cities, and manufacturing where these could compromise safe operations.
According to the company, WIN-911 addresses security in several ways. A few WIN-911 notification methods require Internet connectivity. By allowing module deployment across several network segments, a layer of separation between a control network and the Internet can be created. For example, WIN-911’s mobile app connects securely to web services hosted in Azure. By deploying the WIN-911 Mobile Internet-facing component in the DMZ, the control network is not exposed to the Internet. Additionally, all network connections are outbound initiated, which means you can deploy WIN-911 Mobile without opening ports on your firewall or making intrusive changes to your corporate network infrastructure.
Why Mobile Device Support Is Essential
A wider range of mobile devices are finding their way into plants and facilities. This includes both the “bring your own device” (BYOD) trend and built-for-purpose mobile devices that are becoming more prevalent in harsher industrial environments. WIN-911 supports mobile devices through a variety of communication options, including SMS text messaging, the WIN-911 app, email notification, VoIP, and analog phone lines. In addition to providing real-time notification and alarm details the WIN-911 Mobile app enables teams to chat and collaborate in real time when expertise is needed but workers are remote.
ARC advises end users in critical infrastructure and smart cities to continue and even accelerate their digital transformation and IoT initiatives during the COVID-19 crisis. The need for remote workers to get secure access to critical data from the OT environment in critical applications is only going to increase. Alarms require immediate intervention and can have a significant impact on avoiding unplanned downtime and reducing operational costs. Industrial IoT-based solutions for remote alarm and event notification like WIN-911 provide the advantage of quick and “touchless” installation on top of multiple installed control systems and HMI workstations, and can be installed under the operational budget.
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Keywords: WIN-911, Alarm Management, Remote Alarm and Alert Notification, COVID-19, ARC Advisory Group.