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Good Remote Monitoring Improves Safety in Multiple Ways

By Andrew Erickson

March 2, 2022

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Snowy telecom hut with backup generator
If this hut looks familiar to you, DPS monitoring equipment can help you cut maintenance costs and expensive equipment damage.

I just got back from a fantastic installation trip in the mountainous west of the US. I had the following appointments with DPS clients:

  1. Two days of installation work with a fiber ISP, testing and refining our installation procedure and custom pre-loaded RTU configurations.
  2. A 3-hour meeting with a large power utility about a DIN-mounted AC+DC Power Distribution Unit (PDU). They have very specific goals for the project, which makes our approach to custom engineering a great fit.
  3. A short visit with an installer who works exclusively with local mines on telecom/engineering projects. Although the meeting started with an abrupt, "Who are you?", he was very nice and connected us with their energy division. That group is more likely to use DPS equipment in the near future, as we sell to power companies more often than to mining operations. Oddly enough, he was also able to guess the exact person we'd be meeting with when visited our next client...
  4. A mine that has about a dozen telecom huts that must be monitored. They've used our equipment for the last 8 years
  5. (getting started via the installer above), gradually ramping up the amount of things that are tied into it and tracked via a pair of T/Mon masters. This summer, they expect to use our on-site turn-up and training service to finalize the system and quickly get it across the finish line.
  6. A different local power company that hasn't used DPS extensively before. They only purchased one small NetGuardian 216 way back in 2009. I was grateful that they saw enough potential to schedule four members of their team (my contact in telecom, another telecom tech, a SCADA engineer, and a high-level manager). In meetings like this, I don't try to ramrod a "square peg into a round hole". If you don't have an immediate project, it's my goal to have you understand the most important question before working with DPS: "What are you trying to accomplish?" I walked them through our engineering, handed out some basic documentation, and then allowed them to get on with their workdays.

A Company Policy Puts Safety First - Literally

When I met with the engineer at the mining company, I encountered a holistic approach to safety that I haven't seen before anywhere else. I suppose this makes sense, since there hardly a place with more potential hazards than a mining operation.

Snow-covered telecom hut with installation SOP or MOP
Written procedures, like this one I was developing for a client during my visit, improve both safety and efficiency within your team.

Even COVID protocols, which exist on a broad spectrum in 2022 between and within various regions, were relatively intense. We wore masks, as mandated. We had our temperatures checked, which was common in 2020 but is not practiced nearly as much now. We were not required to have a negative viral test result, but our colleagues last summer did (prior to vaccines being more commonplace).

The most interesting part of this "safety first" culture is literal at the beginning of any meeting (of 3 or more people). It was so unexpected that I didn't really understand what was happening when my client asked me, "We always start meetings here with a safety briefing, so is there anything you want to share about safety?".

I misread the intent here, asking "Oh, are we about to leave this office and enter the mine?". Getting a funny (masked) look in response, I explained that I wasn't really sure what he was after. He took the lead and explained the most relevant safety tip that came to mind:

"You guys come from a climate (the Central Valley of California) where it doesn't really snow on the roads. So, a good safety note is to just keep your speed down. Don't be in a rush to get anywhere. Give yourself extra stopping distance and take corners slowly."

Car fender with icicles in cold weather
Due to a car shortage at the airport rental fleet, I ended up in icy conditions with a V8 muscle car, driving very carefully.

Instantly, it clicked. This mining organization has put a massive cultural emphasis on safety. It's so intense as to be initially confusing for an outsider like me.

After the visit, driving back to our hotel, I thought more about this. It made me think in more detail about the safety aspects of good remote monitoring equipment that I always try to design and deliver perfectly.

Let's review some of the ways that remote monitoring improves safety and protects human life, starting with...

Remote Monitoring Keeps Lifesaving Services Online

First, let's cover the most significant aspect for the general public.

Your operation exists for a reason. For the typical industries served by DPS, this includes essential and fundamental services:

  • Telecommunications must stay online to allow for 911 emergency calls, and to facilitate important work in every other industry for our increasingly "remote" world.
  • Power must stay online for heating, cooling, refrigeration, and health care.
  • Rail & other transportation communications must operate reliably to avoid deadly disasters.
  • Police and fire departments must be able to talk on the radio at all times.
  • Governments and armed forces must be able communicate to coordinate missions of all kinds.

Don't Let Something Trivial Put Lives in Jeopardy

As you can see, massively important lifesaving operations can be jeopardized without good monitoring.

Imagine the massive failure of allowing suffering & death because of something simple:

  1. A site can lose power, switching over to backup batteries. This isn't a huge problem, but you don't know it.
  2. Your batteries run down over perhaps 1-2 days. This isn't a huge problem, but you don't know it.
  3. Your generator kicks on as the batteries become critically low. This isn't a huge problem, but you don't know about it.
  4. After 2 days of fuel consumption, your generator runs dry. With no further support, your site loses power and goes dark.

Although you probably won't be the one to do it directly (government fines and forced CEO retirements are more common), imagine explaining to the families of a victim that your oversight led to a life cut short.

Deer along a chainlink fence
My job, helping clients manage very remote facilities, has me see a lot of wildlife alongside man-made infrastructure.

Remote Monitoring Protects Your Employees, Too

With the number of clients we work with at DPS, it's inevitable that we occasionally hear about tragic events. One in particular sticks out in my mind:

We heard from one DPS client with snowy mountaintop sites that require helicopter trips for maintenance. One technician was dropped off to do a few hours of work while the helicopter proceeded to other sites.

After the work was complete, the technician waited for pickup. He waited and waited. Eventually, another helicopter arrived, delivering the sad news that the first helicopter had crashed, killing all aboard.

Could remote monitoring have prevented this tragedy? Not necessarily. Some site visits are actually required for installation or maintenance work.

Instead, what this story demonstrates is the inherent value in minimizing site visits whenever possible. Some trips (like checking up on an unexplained alarm, or toggling a manual switch) can be avoided with good monitoring & automation, and they absolutely should be.

Compared to the Value of a Life, Remote Monitoring is Very Cheap

Effective remote site monitoring is too important, and too amazingly inexpensive, to ignore. Allow me to demonstrate.

How Can You Possibly Put a Dollar Value on a Life?

I once read a fascinating article about how governments impossibly put a dollar figure on a human life. The concept of "priceless" lives is tossed around a lot, and it's true, but it doesn't help us when it comes to making real-world spending decisions.

Imagine that a rational government (Yes, a big imagination may be required...) wants to save as many people as possible, as efficiently as possible. It would decide what safety regulations to institute and what expenditures are worthwhile.

You can do this sort of thing by ranking every possible expenditure by a "lives saved per dollar" ratio (perhaps putting extra weight on saving children, etc.). You'd then authorize spending for each program in that order.

But where do you stop? There's no end to actions that could save at least one life, even though they might be massively expensive. At what point should dollars transition from keeping people alive to enhancing their lives? Where on the efficiency curve do we instead start spending on education, entertainment, a space program, or anything else?

The article I read had a fascinating answer: "For decision-making purposes, the government values a human life at roughly $7 million."

This can be upsetting to hear. What madman came up with this figure? Actually, the answer is quite elegant: The citizens decided.

As individuals, we have to make safety-related decisions every day. What medical care do we pursue? How much extra do we spend on cars with not-yet-mandated advanced safety features? How much do we spend on bicycle helmets?

If you average out the life-saving expenditures that the average person will and will not purchase, you can arrive at a dollar figure like $7 million.

A remote facility with surveillance cameras
Surveillance cameras improve safety for your team, authorized visitors, the general public, and conceivably even intruders.

RTUs and Master Stations for Remote Monitoring are Cheap

A typical, high-quality RTU that you might install at a remote location is generally about $1000-$5000 (USD), depending on the size and scope of the site.

A master station (one for your entire network) might range from $7000 to $70,000 or so, again depending on options and capacity requirements.

As you can see, we're talking about a typical overall cost of perhaps "a few thousand dollars" per site, not millions and millions. If you choose a manufacturer with good tech support, the time you spend installing and maintaining can be minimized to further reduce your expenses.

Monitoring Gear has a High Yield of Safety per Dollar Spent

Think about preventing a single needless outage. Even if it's just down for a few hours, multiply that by your typical incident rate.

As an example, I've worked with a small-to-medium county government that handles about 175,000 incoming 911 calls per year. For that organization, three hours of downtime would be about 60 missed calls. It's hard to imagine that some monitoring gear that prevents that type of public safety communications failure can't achieve full ROI within a year or two.

What Does Safety for Your Customers and Staff Mean to You?

Let's go back to the beginning and the question that confused me during my client visit: "What does safety mean to you?"

It's my hope that this article gave you some context to think about the real human benefit of a boring old technology like remote site monitoring gear. I'd love it if you called me to share your thoughts on safety. It might just inspire another of my future blog posts.

If you're prepared to talk about your specific remote monitoring needs, that's another great reason to speak with me. Even if you don't know everything about monitoring, I'll walk you through the fundamentals. Whether you need something off-the-shelf or highly customized, I can make that happen for you.

Give me a call at 559-454-1600. You can also email me at sales@dpstele.com

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Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 15 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and opt...

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