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AGA 2019: Small Details Make a Big Difference in Gas Control

This year’s AGA Operations Conference provided many eye-opening moments surrounding the topic of gas control. Specifically, the importance of getting small details right to ensure safe operations.

[Listen to my full podcast recap at]

The Source of Takeaways from 2019 AGA Ops Conference

My takeaways on gas control were sourced from two aspects of the conference: (1) hosting a roundtable with pipeline operations executives on the NTSB Most Wanted List recommendations for pipeline safety and (2) listening to committee discussions and presentations surrounding gas control topics.

First, I was honored to be asked to host a roundtable discussion during the AGA Operations Equipment & Services Associates Managing Committee (OESA MC) meeting.

The managing committee roundtable included representatives from pipeline operators and utility operators. I marched through a handful of the safety recommendations from the NTSB Most Wanted List and gathered feedback on their challenges, actions, and approaches to pipeline safety. I was pleased by the feedback and discussions as the industry continues to drive toward the zero incidents goal.

Second, I attended several committee meetings on gas control, operations and maintenance, measurement, and other industry topics. I also attended presentations from industry operators, vendors, and other groups on new technology and industry developments.

What stood out was the importance of creating alignment around the procedures, actions, and response required in the control room.

Emergency Response: The Importance of the 911 Call

During a presentation by Alfred Musgrove of PG&E, the question was posed to gas utility operators on how many control rooms place an emergency call to the 911 emergency response center (as opposed to directly dialing 911).

The poll result was approximately only 20 percent of respondents. This may seem like a small detail, but it makes a big difference.

The control room in a gas utility operates differently than a liquid pipeline or a gas transmission pipeline in terms of who the gas control room interfaces with. Gas utilities work more closely with cities and their first responders.

Also, a critical element of operations in the gas utility is the distinction between gas control and the dispatch organization. Dispatch is the department that coordinates the activities of field technicians as they respond to customer calls.

Gas utility operators should be thinking about how to properly coordinate their gas control and dispatch operations with the local 911 emergency response centers. This ensures effective and coordinated first response when an issue occurs.

This process also highlights the importance of understanding which local entity is responsible for first response for each pipeline segment and site in your SCADA system, and that accurate, reliable real-time data is available to controllers to support their decisions.

This relates to the NTSB Most Wanted List item P-11-003, which was in response to the San Bruno Incident of 2010. The safety recommendation notes that SCADA operating data and alarms should be appropriately and promptly communicated to 911 centers to ensure prompt and effective first response.

The recommendation continues: “Establish 911 notification criteria based on the SCADA alarms received, such as loss of pressure, the magnitude and time rate of pressure loss, and changes in flow rates. Whenever the parameters exceed designated thresholds, gas control room operators are first, to contact 911; then, to focus on handling the event (for example, a rupture, valve failure, or venting gas); and, finally, to contact corporate management.”

Returning to Normal Operations: Check the Weather

Another key takeaway from the AGA Ops Conference was the importance of accounting for the small detail of weather affecting gas delivery. This aspect of gas control can affect incident response during a period of peak load.

For example, a pipeline operator is prepared for a large delivery of product because of expected changes in weather. However, on the day of the planned delivery, the operator loses their ability to deliver gas out of storage.

One of the most important aspects of responding to this situation is separating the planning and decision-making steps from the actual actions to take.

The takeaway is the importance of organization. The way the operator is organized, the way personnel are separated to focus on their unique and complicated work, and the methods of communication in the control room are critical to support the response.

Then, once the operator navigates the situation, the weather is no longer a factor, and the limitation of supply is handled, the operator still needs to get the gas demand back online or risk an oversupply of product. Essentially, there’s even more work to be done to return to normal operations.

When looking at the big picture, there’s actually as much work and effort required to return to normal after going through the incident as there is managing the actual incident. Again, it’s about managing small details.

Control Room Support: Utilize Three-Way Communication

Another important conversation during the AGA Ops Conference was the method of control room communications.

The key question to consider: how can we make control room interactions more effective and efficient?

There were some suggestions about recording calls, reviewing calls, and tracking the results with a scorecard approach.

Other discussions were about the small, yet important details of how controllers answer the phone, using the phonetic alphabet when referring to valves, stations, etc., and utilizing three-way communication.

Controllers can be resistant to three-way communication because — on the surface — it seems repetitive or redundant. However, when dealing with gas control, it’s well worth the extra step to ensure complete understanding between the control room and the other party.

While three-way communications may not be ideal for all situations, it does make sense for key events such as clearing into a facility, clearing out of a facility, communicating system conditions, communicating changing conditions, and communicating instructions around controls.

Essentially, anytime an unintended operating condition could be a safety risk, you want controllers to utilize three-way communications.

Connect with EnerSys for Support in the Small Details

Overall, the discussions during the AGA Ops Conference served as an invaluable reminder of the importance of small details in gas control.

It’s easy to overlook these small details when focused on the larger topics of advancing to alarm management, utilizing new technology to support operations, and real-time data collection. However, these small details are just as important to support the big picture of safe operations.

We recognize that every pipeline operator or gas utility is on their own journey to support zero incidents. We believe it’s important to take a holistic view of the small and big details to ensure that gaps are minimized or closed.

Consider talking to the EnerSys team about how we can support your operation with our consulting services. We would appreciate the opportunity to follow up on the AGA Ops Conference by finding solutions to the questions presented during the conference.