Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) of Birmingham, Ala., has consistently achieved the rating of the number-five water system in the United States...
The importance of workforce communications
The water industry is one of the most critical, processing and delivering water to customers while under high scrutiny and strict health and safety regulations. Pushed to modernize, yet plagued by rising costs, the industry is on a constant lookout for ways to improve performance, meet customers’ and regulators’ demands, and add value without adding significant cost to operations.
Water industry decision-makers often face a difficult choice: invest in infrastructure upgrades and risk financial pressure, or stay static in development and conserve costs. This dilemma leaves many searching for ways to do more with less. With funding often insufficient to cover both operational costs and improvements to infrastructure, strategic asset management is key.
Many operations in the water treatment industry rely on proven but dated devices and systems—such as two-way radios or carrier-based push-to-talk (PTT) networks—for the bulk of their mobile workforce communications at treatment plants and other facilities. While these systems are durable and reliable, they have always been limited in their range and functionality, and their proprietary nature did not allow for interoperability with other networks, forcing users to carry multiple devices if they desired cross-team communications. However, two-way radios continue to be deployed for maintenance work, where crews are familiar with their relative simplicity and durability.
Integrate to Improve
Rather than seeking to replace radio systems from the ground up, water professionals can modernize overall communication capabilities by extending the life and efficacy of older systems and letting them work alongside newer devices such as smartphones.
Software applications that can dramatically expand the reach, flexibility and interoperability of PTT systems are available. Adopting new systems can seem daunting to facilities operators, but the water industry has already seen the benefits of adopting new technologies in myriad facets of their operations—smart meter installation, energy use monitoring, water analysis and asset management all come to mind as areas in which the industry has adopted software solutions to increase efficiency and empower workers to be more effective.
By enabling workers to use devices such as smartphones for instant PTT communications, software applications can expand the solutions available to staff members while still incorporating existing devices such as two-way radios. Server- and device-based applications can allow workers using almost any type of device—two-way radios, smartphones, desktop PCs and more—to communicate with one another, letting operators take advantage of existing communication assets in addition to newer, smarter devices.
With PTT solutions that can be run securely from a smartphone application interface, workers can access voice communications and other critical software from a single device, eliminating the need to for them to carry and maintain multiple devices. Software applications also can provide a high degree of flexibility and interoperability that can allow disparate teams and organizations—water processing facility staff and local emergency first-responders, for example—to seamlessly bridge voice communication systems in case of an incident.
With connectivity via an IP data network, operators of pump stations gain instant connectivity with mobile teams and back office staff to ensure water systems function properly and errors are immediately addressed or avoided altogether.
Coordination across workers and departments must be efficient not only for operations to run smoothly and quickly, but also to adequately meet consumer demands and follow safety measures. The water industry’s concern with health and safety risks means that seamless communications between teams are critical as a part of prevention and incident response scenarios. Facility staff are the front line of defense against health and safety issues, and they are often required to work with organizations that operate on entirely separate communication systems.
When Sprint’s iDEN network was decommissioned in 2013, a significant shift began in the industry. Because iDEN was previously the mainstay for service provider PTT nationwide, its closure opened a new realm of possibilities for water treatment organizations. No longer are they tied to a single service provider solution for PTT voice communications. Instead, the door has opened for operators to find innovative, modern ways to solve problems, paving the way for device- and network-independent communication solutions.
The ability to connect and extend communication systems without major infrastructure investments is a proposition that operators cannot ignore. As water professionals and IT managers look for ways to streamline and upgrade communications, it is critical to find flexible solutions that provide both the business-class functionality and mission-critical reliability on which mobile workforces can depend for everyday and critical communications. Interoperability software offers exactly that—giving operators the real-time connectivity to mobile staff necessary for efficient operations.