Eric has over 35 years of experience in the development, delivery, management, and support of operations information technology solutions in the process industries. During his career his assignments and responsibilities have included process automation systems development, communications network design, functional and technical architecture design, and technology lifecycle management. He recently retired as an Operations IT Consulting Engineer with the Dow Chemical Company.
Like everyone else, I have been self-isolating for the past several weeks. This has given me time to think about our current pandemic situation and reflect on how some of our past experiences may serve us well in coping with some of the challenges that we face. While the COVID-19 pandemic may be almost unprecedented, effective responses are certainly not.
Like governments, many businesses have long had comprehensive plans for maintaining their operations in the face of all types of emergencies and external events, from severe weather to significant supply chain disruptions. Many of the components of these plans apply equally well in response to the current pandemic.
Many of us who have worked in industry have personal experience with a situation that was something of the inverse of the scenario posed — a workforce disruption arising from a strike or lockout. In addition to ensuring that normal operations can continue in the face of external events, it is also essential to maintain operations when normal operations staff are not available.
In 1988, the integrated chemical plant where I worked went through a work stoppage that lasted 7 months. We were able to see it coming as we monitored contract negotiations and were able to make the necessary preparations. The continuity plans put in place included:
- Training people to fill roles other than their normal assignments, at times taking advantage of their specialized skills, training or certification
- Reconfiguring of operations to allow for minimal staffing
- All maintenance coordinated across multiple operations in an integrated site, with a central approach to the assignment of skilled trades
- Having a support agreement with our computer supplier that required maintaining all of the spare parts that we could conceivably need on-site and assignment of one of their technicians to us full time (i.e., 24×7). Just like company employees this person would be locked in at first, moving to 12-hour shifts when possible. We were never without a trained technician on site
- All entry to and exit from the site was strictly controlled by closing unnecessary gates, temporary guard shacks, and regular perimeter patrols 24×7
- All direct access telephone calls stopped in favor of a central switchboard
In addition to all of the above, the company had to supply food, clothing, laundry services, sleeping arrangements, etc. for all of the personnel that were “locked down” doing operations. I’ve seen similar contingency planning in advance of severe weather like hurricanes, but these don’t last nearly as long.
My role for the duration of the event was to lead the core group responsible for all computing and communications infrastructure, as well as coordinating maintenance on DCS and related systems. Instrumentation was the responsibility of central maintenance. This included a site-wide Ethernet network (remember, this was 1988) and an extensive terminal switching network, all voice lines and a site-wide video system. Most of my usual technical experts were reassigned to the instrument and electrical department, so I had to learn a lot about the hands-on maintenance of these systems in a very short time. Collectively we learned a great deal about what constitutes essential communications and other services and were able to make adjustments as required.
Although a pandemic presents a different set of circumstances and associated challenges, many of the mitigation measures are essentially the same. Once we have found our way past the current crisis, I am confident that there will be many lessons learned that will result in improvements to future plans.
Even after more than thirty years I still clearly remember how these challenging circumstances became our “new normal” and how we adjusted. I’ll never forget the experience, but I’d never want to do it again.
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