By Jorge Luis | Mission Critical Communications

To maintain production and worker safety, industries in hazardous environments depend on reliable, organizationwide communications. EP Petroecuador is the national oil and gas company of Ecuador, specializing in the refining, storage, transport and sale of petroleum derivatives, both domestically and internationally. The company’s operations are of critical importance to the country, as oil and gas form a significant piece of the Ecuadorian economy.

An important part of EP Petroecuador’s operations is the management and maintenance of Ecuador’s national oil pipeline network. Petroleum derivatives from the country’s oil fields are transported through this network of 1,600 kilometers of pipelines, and connect Ecuador’s oil fields in the east with the Esmeraldas Refinery on the country’s Pacific west coast, crossing dense jungles and the Andes Mountains.

The extremely challenging terrain and remote areas the pipelines cross mean there is no LTE coverage, making a purpose-built radio network EP Petroecuador’s only option for reliable communications along the pipelines. In a move to enhance its existing radio network, the company decided to replace an aging critical communications network consisting of a mix of analog and proprietary digital equipment.

In late 2016, EP Petroecuador issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a critical VHF digital radio system. Open standards were a key requirement to integrate multivendor equipment and systems, so EP Petroecuador could continue to leverage some existing communications infrastructure.

DMR Tier 2
In February 2017, EP Petroecuador decided that a DMR Tier 2 system proposed by Tait Communications best met its needs. A Tait solution stood out because it is built solidly on open and nonproprietary industry standards, giving the oil and gas firm the advantage of multivendor supply, increased innovation, new product development and protection from obsolescence.

Tait is one of the last LMR suppliers that continues to design, manufacture, market and deploy its own products, and this assures a tight coordination and control of the supply chain, quality, hardware and software enhancements, upgrades and modifications. The increased responsiveness, flexibility, improved equipment lead times, and quality control were other deciding factors for EP Petroecuador.

Officials implemented a phased migration from the existing analog network that covered the pipeline to a Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) Tier 2 system. The systems channel controller allows for an easy upgrade to DMR Tier 3 through a software update, without the need for additional equipment.

Local company Lambda-Tec Cía maintains the DMR Tier 2 system, simplifying the management and monitoring of the network for EP Petroecuador system administrators and allowing them to focus on improving the efficiency of operations and worker safety.

Coverage
To guarantee reliable coverage in the remote areas the pipelines were located, several physical challenges needed to be overcome. To negotiate Ecuador’s thick jungles and mountains, Lambda-Tec Cía deployed a complete solution on the existing 16 sites, replacing analog repeaters with 22 DMR Tier 2 repeaters and adding Sinclair Q2220e duplexers, CommScope antennas, Astron power supplies, and Power Sonic batteries for the fixed mobile radios.

To provide better range and coverage in the challenging environments, the network operates on VHF frequencies, with 20 repeaters on 168/173 MHz and two on 140 MHz to bypass heavier use of VHF spectrum around populated areas. The inaccessible nature of other parts of the environment presented an interesting challenge — several sites were more than 150 miles away from the nearest repeater. To reach these sites and cover the entire area of EP Petroecuador’s operations, Tait developed custom software to permit the DMR Tier 2 repeaters more time to receive a signal, allowing fixed-base radios at these remote sites to be connected to the radio network.

IP Telephony Integration
Besides reliable coverage, another important move forward for EP Petroecuador’s communications during critical situations is the integration between the DMR system and the existing Cisco IP telephone system. A channel controller was connected to EP Petroecuador’s existing telephone system to allow the company’s personal branch exchange (PBX) private telephone network six simultaneous session initiation protocol (SIP) calls between the IP telephony and DMR networks.

This integration was crucial, because it leveraged the company’s existing IP telephony system and enables communications between office-based staff and supervisors using desk phones with end users in the field using DMR radios, allowing for more efficient communications between administrative staff and operational teams in real time.

Talkgroups
Previously, different divisions of EP Petroecuador shared communications resources, meaning there was always a risk of communications being unavailable. The new DMR network gives EP Petroecuador the ability to create dedicated talkgroups for the different divisions of the company. This separation significantly decreases radio noise from unrelated communications and guarantees availability of communications for different divisions and groups within EP Petroecuador.

The DMR Tier 2 network provides 18 voice and data channels, with a nationwide logical channel for critical operations across the entire company. To have a nationwide talkgroup for communications across its entire operation was a priority for EP Petroecuador because it allowed for transparency on all levels so any issues along the pipeline could be resolved quickly and efficiently.

As well as voice communications, the DMR Tier 2 network also enables users to send data and text messages over the radio network. This means that the teams at EP Petroecuador communicating over the DMR Tier 2 network can send information such as job status, site arrival and departure details, and repair requests from their radios, making operations more transparent and efficient.

Worker Safety
Health and safety are priorities for EP Petroecuador, as oil and gas operations are potentially hazardous and can pose significant risk to employees. To ensure the safety of staff and prevent equipment becoming an ignition source in the explosive atmospheric working environment of its operations, the company opted for 525 intrinsically safe portable radios with a range of worker safety features.

A key worker safety feature is GPS location services. Because EP Petroecuador’s areas of operation are so remote, knowing the location of staff is vital in cases of emergencies or when maintenance on the pipelines is required. Combined with other safety features such as the man down and lone worker alarms, the GPS location service enables EP Petroecuador to exactly pinpoint where an accident might have occurred. This functionality significantly cuts emergency response times and improves worker safety.

Programmable emergency keys have also proven invaluable, allowing workers in the field to automatically call for help with a press of a button. The new safety features of the DMR Tier 2 system align with EP Petroecuador’s health and safety policy, and more importantly, users of the safety features have confirmed the benefits to worker safety in the field.

Emergency Response
The new system has already proven its value in a recent emergency event. In early April, heavy rains in the Amazon caused landslides that damaged some of the pipelines operated by EP Petroecuador. Employees used the DMR Tier 2 system to communicate effectively and respond quickly during the recovery and management of this emergency event. The direct communications between Quito-based staff and field personnel, facilitated by the nationwide talkgroup and IP telephony integration, were key in ensuring there was minimal impact to personnel and equipment during the event, and a speedy recovery plan was actioned.

“Being able to rely on a nationwide talkgroup with excellent coverage, plus the transparent integration between the DMR system and our IP telephony are the greatest benefits that the Tait DMR Tier 2 network has given EP Petroecuador,” says Javier Cabrera V., network and communications supervisor.

The open standards-based DMR Tier 2 solution has given EP Petroecuador excellent coverage across its entire operations and allowed it to integrate existing third-party IP telephony equipment. Full interoperability with current and future DMR equipment from vendors committed to open standards is available. Real-time communications between administrative and operational staff through the IP telephony integration has significantly improved efficiency and safety. This, coupled with the dedicated and nationwide talkgroups, has given EP Petroecuador peace of mind that communications will get through. The enhanced availability of communications channels has, together with the numerous new safety features, enhanced worker safety practices at EP Petroecuador and meets health and safety policies and procedures.

Lambda-Tec Cía was instrumental in deploying the network, installing equipment with minimal disruption to the ongoing operations of EP Petroecuador. The Tait dealer also provided user training to EP Petroecuador staff, ensuring quick adoption and buy-in, which led to a smooth transition from the old system to the new DMR Tier 2 system. Lambda-Tec continues to provide maintenance to the network when required.

Most importantly, the DMR Tier 2 network has enabled EP Petroecuador staff to communicate more clearly with quality, reliable voice and data. This, combined with the ongoing maintenance of the reliable and high-performing hardware and technology, has ensured teams trust the new digital communications solution and made them confident in using the new equipment.


Jorge Luis is director of business development Caribbean and Latin America at Tait Communications. For more than 14 years, he has been dedicated to developing strong relationships in Latin America, creating value across multiple industries such as healthcare, public safety, oil and gas, mining and utilities. Jorge is a believer and proponent of Tait values such as commitment to open standards and New Zealand’s dedication to transparency.

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