Control room functions at natural gas and oil companies are drawing unprecedented attention from industry officials and regulators alike. The complex applications that call for human attention are multiplying, raising the bar on operator candidate minimum capabilities requirements. The human-machine interfaces are getting smaller and smarter. The challenge is for operators to grow in their jobs, efficiently handling the burgeoning information flow.
Job Performance Systems, Inc. is a San Francisco Bay company that focuses on control room responsibilities. Co-founder Jolene Kramer is General Manager of the Industrial Division and Chief Financial Officer. Despite those lofty titles, she tells P&GJ that she still enjoys answering the COBRA hotline to provide technical support.
P&GJ: What prompted you to establish Job Performance Systems and what is the firm’s role pertaining to the energy industry?
Kramer: My business partner – Dr. Doug Rosenthal – and I met in 1993. I was working for a global oil and gas company, and Doug was working for Aerospace Sciences Inc. (ASI). ASI had designed a simulation-based selection test for air traffic controllers for the FAA. My colleague, Paul Millner, was leading a process control best practices team, and had the insight to hire ASI to develop a similar-type test for process control operators. This tool eventually became COBRA – Console Operator Basic Requirements Assessment. It had an immediate and dramatic impact on every segment of our oil and gas company’s business – refining, chemicals, and pipeline. I knew it had the potential to change the entire process industry and make it safer.
When Doug and I started our business in 1997, COBRA was the cornerstone and still is. We have expanded, added more talented team members, and provide a full range of products and services to the energy industry worldwide including consulting and operations and maintenance training. Our focus is still on safety and operational excellence, supported by all of our products and services.
P&GJ: What were your interests before you became involved in the energy business?
Kramer: I grew up in Denver and graduated from the Colorado School of Mines in 1983 with a degree in Chemical and Petroleum Refining Engineering. I’ve always had an interest in process control and computer simulation. During my career in global oil and gas, I worked with process modeling simulators, process control systems, operator training simulators, and even expert systems. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a control freak.
P&GJ: What has been your career path?
Kramer: In 1997 when JPS was a startup company, my primary role was to provide 24/7 COBRA support to our valued customers, which were only about a dozen. I got to know each customer and enjoyed working with all of them.
After the kids were tucked into bed, I thought about the type of company I wanted to create. I wanted to build a company that was successful, a fun place to work and that allowed team members to do what they do best and to thrive. I wanted a company where employees could maintain a healthy balance between life and work. I feel I have achieved this goal.
P&GJ: Why has JPS chosen to focus on control operator functions?
Kramer: The control operator is the person with their finger on the pulse. They are typically the first person to recognize and respond when something is going wrong. They often direct field operators and interact with customers. So, it is critical that we do all that we can to help them be successful. Control system technology has become more automated and sophisticated, but there will always be a need for human intelligence. The key is not the amount of technology that you buy, but providing the right resources and support to the operator to help them be successful using all of this technology. I think anyone who owns the latest smart phone or digital camera understands what I’m talking about.
P&GJ: What are the three most difficult challenges facing operators that you typically work with?
Kramer: One challenge we hear is alarm management. Believe it or not, we’ve visited control rooms that routinely average 500 alarms or more per hour.
A second challenge is not enough training time and training resources, particularly simulator training. Simulator training is standard in the airline and nuclear industries, but it is not very common in the process industry.
Finally, a challenge that affects most everyone is mergers and acquisitions. There is often a vast difference between training policies and procedures at one site versus another because each facility has its own legacy. Integrating these different legacies and making a consistent standard across all facilities can be difficult but is critical to safety.
These are the same themes we were hearing 20 years ago. Technology has improved but the human factor challenges haven’t really changed that much.
P&GJ: Why has control operations become such an important issue in recent years?
Kramer: Modern SCADA technology and DCS technology really wasn’t mainstream until about 20 years ago. With older instrumentation, there were panel- or board-mounted strip charts, and everyone (maintenance, management, engineering, etc.) could see and monitor what was going on in the plant. With modern control systems, all of this data is brought into a single workstation and there is a single control operator responsible. It really puts a lot of responsibility on this one individual.
P&GJ: Are the new regulations that the pipeline industry faces, especially since the Operator Qualification (OQ) rule was established, appropriate or should they have been stricter?
Kramer: The DOT PHMSA OQ ruling is the first step toward creating some consistency and uniformity across the industry and across all pipeline operators. One area I would have liked to have seen established in the new regulation is pre-screening for cognitive abilities that are critical for the job of pipeline controller. I believe PHMSA does recommend a test for color-blindness, but I think they should have gone further and recommended a test for minimum cognitive abilities. Like an air traffic controller, this job is really unique.
P&GJ: Are companies devoting more attention and resources in hiring and training of control operators? How would you rate the industry’s effort in upgrading control room operations?
Kramer: Overall, I would grade the industry a “C.” They are passing, but often just minimally. Companies are beginning to recognize they need to devote more funding to the hiring and training of control operators. Unfortunately, too often it is only after suffering a major event or incident. We know that investing in hiring and training will pay for itself many times over and will increase safety and prevent incidents. We know that these dollars are precious. The key is to spend your hiring and training dollars wisely and on the right things that will have the biggest impact to your bottom line. Invest in what will help achieve operational excellence and safety.
P&GJ: What characteristics should companies seek among candidates?
Kramer: For the control operator job, they should look for those who are able to concentrate over long periods of time, focus in the face of distractions, multi-task, quickly detect anomalies, remain calm and focused in emergencies, and are proficient at reasoning and problem solving. These are all cognitive abilities. They need candidates who are dependable, good team players, exhibit good communication skills and are comfortable working rotating shifts. These are all interpersonal abilities.
A good hiring process will assess all of these. What works best is a simulation-based test (for cognitive abilities) followed by a structured interview (for interpersonal abilities).
P&GJ: What are some factors companies may overlook when selecting operators?
Kramer: I think the biggest mistake they make is relying too heavily on minimum years of relevant work experience and/or minimum years of higher education when making their selection. They would do better to cast the net wide and consider a wider range of applicants, including those who have no prior experience and/or higher education but who show they have the abilities needed to succeed in the job. These trainees may be your very best control operators. And, they are probably more likely to stay in the job long term.
P&GJ: What is a typical training program like?
Kramer: We recommend an operator training program that first includes some type of pre-screening test for trainability. Then there is Fundamentals training that might last several weeks followed by Formal Job Specific training which might take many months. There should be tests along the way (written and practical) with a final qualification test before working the job solo.
Often we see companies short-circuiting this process. They do not have a pre-screening test for trainability nor do they have Fundamentals training. Rather, they may hire the person based solely on a job application and interview and then immediately put the person into Formal Job Specific training which is simply shadowing with a more experienced operator.
P&GJ: How have training methods for operators improved in recent years?
Kramer: Companies have recognized they need to create a full-time trainer position, which is good. The challenge is filling this position and keeping it filled, because generally the candidates who are qualified for this job are your best and most experienced control operators. The 5/50 rule – that half the workforce will be retirement eligible in five years – makes it even more challenging.
Companies need to start delivering more of their training through workbooks or training modules. This will help lighten the trainer’s workload and help provide a place to capture the knowledge of your most experienced people before they walk out the door.
P&GJ: What does the future hold for the control room operator of 2020 in terms of challenges and new technologies?
Kramer: I think we will see a rapid expansion of smart phone and tablet technology, especially for delivering training, but also potentially for routine duties, procedures, and job aids. This technology could even be used to help monitor the process. So, instead of company personnel physically walking into the control room and glancing up at the panel board, they will be looking at their smart phones.
We’ll likely see more consolidation and centralization of control rooms. This is often prompted by an acquisition or merger. When these new control rooms are designed, companies are more often taking into account human factors in terms of lighting, display standards, traffic patterns, and furniture. This is good news for the operator.
There will continue to be more technology applications introduced that are layered on top of the SCADA or DCS control system. For example, leak detection, advanced control, optimization, etc. This creates even more complexity and more training for the control operator. It will be interesting.
Jolene Kramer can be reached at email@example.com