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Improving Communications Safety in Industrial Plants

Industrial facilities that I have financed construction of or worked daily with project engineers on during construction have all been scrutinized carefully in the planning stages for safety and emergency preparedness. As we have seen U.S. or even international petrochemical, oil processing, LNG, power and other industrial plants constructed, plant contractors, engineers and financiers alike have always donefcontingency planning to maximize plant safety and minimize plant down time or business interruption. As a former financier of such plants, we always looke to safety planning on equipment, building utilities and grounds as critical elements to signing off on plant completion. The training programs for plant staff also focused on understanding safety contingencies.

How can safety be improved in the industrial marketplace? At present, I focus on sufficiency of communications for emergency, fire safety and at work sectors. Interoperability is one issue that is reshaping municipal, private and government fire safety entity procedures and safety equipment budgets. Within a plant, communication amongst a safety response team or industrial fire brigade is critical. The right equipment is always at issue whether cell phones, low watt or high watt handhelds or mobile radios are used. Interference from buildings, poor wiring or old equipment must always be understood and minimized to ensure clear communications. Unfortunately, when budgets are planned for plant safety, such cost estimates are usually not known and are only inserted as amendments to future operating or apparatus budgets.

How about local apparatus on site? Has industrial fire brigade management considered the value of any hearing protection installed in such apparatus to protect against high noise decibel levels in plant environments? I am approached often in travels around the U.S. by 20-plus year veterans of fire departments who complain about going deaf. Great strides have been made in apparatus safety resulting in such actions as moving sirens, exhaust pipes, etc., but there is a real need for greater focus on ear safety in individual plant environments. Several reliable listen-only safety headsets exist for at work environments that can provide at least 24db of high noise protection while increasing the noise attenuation or quality of ambient voices or emergency audio traffic within the plant safety team.

Many plant command centers, vehicles or command centers often have multiple handheld radios and mobile radios for incident communications. For a fire and safety team at one plant, reliability and durability may be enhanced with the safety officer wearing a dual radio headset that monitors one handheld and base command frequency from one ear and one handheld that monitors other response teams or local emergency response teams from the other ear. When communicating to either frequency, a push to talk feature is used on either earpiece. The officer gains immediate flexibility at an emergency scene with no tethering to vehicles or center consoles. With the handhelds held in place with radio belts and with short radio interface cords to a dual radio headset, any industrial fire brigade member can be fighting a fire, assisting other team members, etc. on a hands free basis.

What about interoperability of communications between plant personnel, outside mutual aid, private fire and safety contractors, etc.? The issues of multiple frequencies, lack of mobile repeaters, basic understandings on location of inside and outside emergency personnel are all too real. A simple solution, i.e. multi radio interface capability, exists for plants to prepare for the contingency of needing to access local EMS, police and fire personnel to augment their internal plant fire and safety brigades. Avcomm International, Inc. can provide dual radio interface intercoms paired with a simple multi radio interface device. The co driver or officer of a plant rescue rig can monitor up to four portable or mobile radios and a cell phone simultaneously. With the simple flip of a switch, the officer can talk to several radios or solicit arrival info from central police dispatch or base support in a neighboring community. Headsets with flex boom mics allow the driver, co-driver or scene commander to communicate at will on any portable or mobile frequencies. For any command type vehicle, interoperability is vital and simple communications systems provide easily understood answers.

Although use of simple headset and radio interface systems can bring instant communications to multiple emergency response teams in and out of plant, interoperability problems can still arise. In real life, there could be a large warehouse or packaging factory ablaze. The concrete walls and structural steel will prevent some conversations between internal crews and the fire ground commander outside. If there are mobile repeaters mounted in fire apparatus, for example, low wattage portable signals (circa five watts) can be boosted up to 50 watts to reach the base control or relay station. Many times, however, RF interference can play havoc with reception from the plant fire scene and a regional base station.

Planning for plant safety and communications is well intentioned in most modern plants today. However, the interoperability issues that can occur with these plant communications during industrial emergencies are the real life challenges that can necessitate need for improved solutions. The simple communication system in use across the U.S. that are mentioned above do save lives, are efficient and provide utmost reliability and ear safety for the safety personnel teams, whether industrial or from the community.

Contact Richard H. Edwards at rick@avcomm.com.

 
 

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