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Wireless networks to enhance worker safety

Corpus Christi, Texas, deploys automated meter reading for water and gas.

Sometimes, it’s a little thing such as a dog biting a meter reader. It results in a workers’ compensation claim or a lawsuit. And it gets people thinking that there’s a better, safer way to get the job done.

This was much the story in Corpus Christi, Texas, which deployed an automated meter reading (AMR) system for its municipal water and gas utility. The city had experienced meter reader injuries, workers’ compensation claims and staff turnover. Technology offered a better way. The AMR system improved the efficiency and accuracy of meter reading and eliminated the need for meter readers to undertake dangerous tasks such as scaling fences with locked gates and confronting unpredictable animals.

A key component of any modern AMR system is a wireless communication network that covers the service territory. However, wireless networking can improve utility employee safety by enabling applications beyond AMR. For example, remotely monitoring and controlling devices such as switches in electricalutility substations and pumps in water-utility lift stations can reduce or even eliminate the need for workers to travel to remote facilities. Less driving and less time spent at remote sites translates into less chance of accidents. Further, when dispatch is required, wireless access for field workers using laptops, tablets and handheld devices enables on-site access to schematics and manuals, supporting safe, successful repair efforts.

Corpus Christi made the forward-looking decision to install a private broadband wireless network that would serve the needs of not just the municipal utility but other city departments as well. As a result, public safety officers, public works employees, building inspectors and even members of the public can use the city’s wireless network.

With a multi-use network such as Corpus Christi’s, employee safety benefits extend to other city departments. Transit worker safety, for instance, can be enhanced by combining in-vehicle video monitoring with an automated vehicle location (AVL) system. A vehicle operator hitting a panic button can alert a supervisor that an incident has occurred, enabling the supervisor to remotely assess the situation and dispatch assistance to the correct location.

A wireless communication network can enhance worker safety in industry as well as government. For example, many oil and gas fields are sited in remote locations that lack cellular telephone and data coverage. A seemingly innocent event, such as a truck failing to start, can quickly turn life-threatening, especially if the location is situated in a region of extreme hot or cold, as is often the case in the oil patch.

While the initial impetus for installing a wireless network at an oil or gas well site might be an operational factor, such as communicating SCADA information, companies with the foresight to implement a wireless network that can support multiple applications can reap employee safety benefits as well. For example, when employees are deployed to remote facilities, video surveillance cameras – installed primarily for site security and connected to a central monitoring location via a broadband wireless network – can double as a remote set of eyes to monitor worker well-being. Facilities in areas lacking cell coverage take this a step further – a private broadband wireless network enabling a voice over IP (VoIP) application on a laptop, tablet or handheld device can serve as a lifeline when other options for voice communications are not available.

But enabling safety-enhancing applications – especially those relying on real-time video – can’t be done with just any wireless network. Key requirements for such a network include:
  • High reliability
  • Economically scalable from small areas to entire cities and even counties
  • Performance, both high throughput and low latency
  • Security
  • Seamless mobility

To meet these requirements, many government and industrial entities are opting to build, own and operate their own private wireless network. Private wireless networks meet or exceed the requirements for supporting safety-enhancing applications, especially when implemented using broadband wireless mesh networking technology. Broadband mesh networks particularly shine when deployed to run many applications, especially bandwidth intensive ones (eg, video surveillance and monitoring, GIS, large image downloads) over the network simultaneously.

In short, with a broadband wireless mesh network, the more applications, the better the return on the networking investment.

Wireless communication networks can improve worker safety. They enable a diverse set of safety-enhancing applications. Successful deployment requires a network infrastructure that meets the widely varying requirements of all these applications simultaneously. A private broadband wireless network based on mesh networking technology provides the required communication foundation.

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