The Best Approach to Optimize Communication in Your Control Room

Effective communication in your control room is critical to achieving a safe, efficient, and compliant control room. It sounds like common sense, but, unfortunately, many pipeline incidents investigations find that ineffective communication is a contributing factor.

An additional complication is the role of outside parties involved in communicating with controllers. That’s why PHMSA issued new FAQs providing more guidance on roles & responsibilities in the control room. This recommendation provides guidance to the pipeline operator requiring they define who can direct the actions of a controller. In particular, who other than control room supervision.

There are other significant considerations to optimize control room communication, such as a streamlined shift handover process, fatigue management, and proper recordkeeping.

The key is having policies, procedures, and processes in place to put each element together to support effective communication in the control room.

Define Roles & Responsibilities in Your Control Room

When the CRM Rule was implemented, the guideline for Roles and Responsibilities was defined as follows:

“Each operator must define the roles and responsibilities of a controller during normal, abnormal, and emergency operating conditions. To provide for a controller’s prompt and appropriate response to operating conditions, an operator must define each of the following: The roles, responsibilities, and qualifications of others who have the authority to direct or supersede the specific technical actions of controllers.”

The NTSB recommendations following the Marshall incident led to the requirement to clarify the roles of others in directing pipeline controllers. This inclusion of “others” led to complications around communication with controllers.

In the new FAQs issued in January 2018, PHMSA clarified that individuals with authority to direct or supersede must be qualified to “dictate operational decisions” that align with their authority and responsibilities.

Furthermore, the responsibilities of the individuals who use their authority to direct or supersede the actions of a controller are “in control of the pipeline and are responsible for all operational actions taken or directed to the controller to take (or not take).”

How should pipeline operators settle this matter to optimize communication with controllers? PHMSA recommends taking the following actions:

  • Establish procedures that describe when such authority is invoked
  • Designate the individuals who have the authority
  • Define the roles, responsibilities, and qualifications in these situations

Streamline the Shift Handover Process

The CRM Rule incorporates by reference the API 1168 guideline for appropriate shift handover procedures.

These procedures are critical for defining horizontal and vertical communication in the control room. Horizontally, controllers should follow protocol for relaying information to the next controller when ending their shift. Vertically, controllers need to communicate activity during their shift to the control room manager.

The effective communication in the control room is driven by effective use of your logbook. Accurate records in the logbook will (a) establish a record of key communications, (b) ensure that the incoming controller can reliably take over controls, and (c) provide control room managers with a complete view of activity during each shift, which can be used to analyze and improve communications.

Another key to effective communication in the control room is in the shift handover process. Effective shift handover ensures continuity of communication across shifts. When the process is automated and the record-keeping burden is minimized, controllers are apt to be more diligent in capturing the communications. Furthermore, you can match up shift handover records with your processes to achieve compliance and produce reports that satisfy audit requests.

Focus on Fatigue Mitigation

Another documented cause of pipeline incidents is controller fatigue, which can contribute to ineffective communications.

In previous control room environments, controllers were pushed to their limits and did not have clear channels to communicate fatigue. For today’s control room environment, PHMSA has provided guidelines on fatigue mitigation to ensure that operators provide sufficient resources for controllers to achieve situational awareness (SA) throughout their shift.

To address day-to-day fatigue issues, you should implement “appropriate mitigation tactics” and have “mechanisms in place to help deal with controllers who are self-identified or identified by supervisors as being fatigued.”

Additionally, you should routinely gather feedback about which tactics work and do not work for each individual. Then, using the communication from your controllers, you can take appropriate measures to add or enhance specific fatigue mitigation tactics.

The goal is to build a control room environment that equips controllers to communicate effectively and to follow procedures for minimizing fatigue so that they can continue performing tasks at a high level during their shift.

Ensure You Have Proper Records

Finally, you need to be able to prove effective communication in your control room. Records, logs, and reports should be optimized to both provide for effective communication and to ensure that you can demonstrate compliance with the CRM Rule.

– For example, when an authorized individual uses their authority to direct or supersede the actions of a controller, your operation is required to document and retain records on the actions taken, the qualifications of the authorized individual, and the timeframe for which the person is qualified.

This activity should be matched against written procedures that define the scope of authority for the individual and the operating condition (normal, abnormal, or emergency) that allows the individual to use their authority.

– Another example pertains to maintaining records of your fatigue management program.

PHMSA requires operators to have “written procedures that implement the fatigue mitigation requirements.” Then, you must be able to produce records of “actual schedules, timesheets and other records to show how those procedures are implemented, including if/how any changes to those schedules are managed in the context of the procedures.”

Both examples highlight the need to document critical areas of communication in your control room and be able to produce records that validate compliance.

Utilize EnerSys Software to Support Control Room Communication

EnerSys makes the process easy to embed effective communication in your control room through our POEMS Control Room Management (CRM) software suite.

We built the CRMgr component of the CRM Suite specifically to help operators streamline the shift handover process, align policies and procedures with the CRM Rule requirements, produce fatigue mitigation reports, and ensure proper recordkeeping.

By utilizing our off-the-shelf software solution, you will be able to optimize communication in your control room to ensure safe, efficient, and compliant controller activity.

To see our software in action, we would like to schedule a brief, no-obligation demo with your team. To get started, please complete our contact form, email our team at, or call us directly at 281-598-7100.