Loudoun water needed reliable connectivity to maintain critical infrastructure

by Mike Beardslee - Managing Director of Technology Services, Loudoun Water

“From a safety perspective, I would characterize FirstNet as a game changer.”

Loudoun Water is a critical infrastructure provider of water, wastewater and reclaimed water services for Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. We serve a population of over 300,000, and our service area is a little over 140 square miles.

We have a wide variety of communication needs. Our utility workers in the field need voice and data, whether they're communicating with the home office or with each other – especially in emergency situations. They need data connectivity to receive notifications, update work orders and look at maps. Our office staff need to connect to all of our remote facilities which are scattered throughout our service area. These remote facilities include water storage tanks, water and sewer pump stations, and metering vaults. We need different types of data from all those locations.

In an emergency, we staff the Loudoun County Emergency Operations Center with someone from Loudon Water and we work shoulder to shoulder with the County – and particularly with Loudoun County Fire and Rescue – to serve any emergency needs. We need reliable communications to perform all of these functions. That’s why we’re on FirstNet.  

Supporting public safety

Loudoun County Fire and Rescue depends on our fire hydrants. When a hydrant is taken out of service for maintenance, we coordinate closely with Loudoun County Fire and Rescue to ensure they know where those hydrants are – and where they might have to use an alternative hydrant to put out a fire in an emergency.

During storm events, we have to work closely with the Emergency Operations Center to make sure we know what services are affected and where the outages are, so we can begin to address those issues. The June 2012 Derecho is the most obvious example of a storm system that created a lot of problems for us. It was one of the deadliest and most-destructive in history and we had a significant loss of communications during that event.  

Moving to FirstNet

In fact, the 2012 derecho was one of the reasons Loudoun Water decided to adopt FirstNet. We lost the ability to communicate with each other through the commercially-available consumer-grade cellular network. That was one of the catalysts to move off of traditional cellular; it just wasn’t good enough in an emergency. We were essentially blind during that event; I can remember trying to make calls to the folks on our internal emergency response team as well as family members and coworkers. I couldn’t get through to any of them. Even text messages were unreliable.

The impact to our customers was significant because we could not tell if they were calling us. We could not determine what services were affected and we could not communicate with Loudon County’s Emergency Operations Center or coordinate with Fire and Rescue.

When Loudoun Water started looking for a communications system upgrade to serve our needs, we knew we wanted a system that was secure and more well-protected—especially important because of our status as critical infrastructure. The data we transmit over a cellular network needs to be secure and protected so that it can't be hacked. We also wanted something that was reliable and that had a stated service level agreement (SLA) behind it, not something backed by the standard carriers’ best effort. FirstNet gives us all of these things, and it gives us priority service as well, unlike a standard consumer grade cellular network.

Monitoring critical infrastructure

From a safety perspective, I would characterize FirstNet as a game changer.  There were situations at certain facilities – for example, our water storage tanks – where folks would be in the control room and could not get a cell signal. If they're in there by themselves and an emergency situation arises, they need to be able to communicate.

Sewage pump stations typically have pumps down well below grade or underground. One of our major wastewater treatment facilities has a structure that is several stories below grade. When workers were in that facility, they could not get a cell signal.

Now with our FirstNet booster antennas, our workers can make phone calls from the basement of the sewage pump station. This really boosts safety in some of our most critical facilities and it greatly aids in normal operational activities. 

Mapping capabilities

Our field staff use computerized mapping or “GIS” to locate our buried pipes, valves and other utility network equipment, often within centimeters.  GIS is invaluable when we have to dig up our facilities, repair them, or just execute a work order.

FirstNet is now a part of our GIS mapping infrastructure because it's the backbone of the communications network that we use to connect to the database that contains all of those maps. Our workers have fast, reliable access to maps at their fingertips thanks to FirstNet.

Our field workers also use FirstNet broadband capabilities and data capabilities while they are out in the field. They create and update work orders and take video and photos when they're inspecting our facilities – before, during and after inspections. Then they use cellular communications and data communications to upload the work order and inspection data.

Why FirstNet

When it comes to resiliency, technology and security, FirstNet is now a significant part of our technology strategic plan. It gives us resiliency because it's a much more robust architecture than standard cellular service. We’ve paired FirstNet with fiber service in some of our major remote facilities to provide a redundant communications network capability. FirstNet is the primary backhaul service for our smaller remote facilities, which means that we have a highly reliable, SLA-backed service for even minor locations.

All of our employees’ Loudon Water-provided cell phones have FirstNet SIMs, which gives them priority service and all of the capabilities that come with standard FirstNet voice service. Our field workers also have 2-in-1 laptop/tablet mobile devices with FirstNet SIMs in them, which allows them to get their work orders, look at maps, enter timesheets and more. We have FirstNet modems deployed at over 100 of our remote facilities, and these serve our SCADA, access security, and video surveillance requirements.

Before we implemented FirstNet at these remote locations we were only able to transmit relatively limited data. We could not serve those remote facilities with connections that could backhaul large amounts of SCADA data or provide connectivity for access security and live video surveillance feeds. The FirstNet platform now allows us to do that.

Biggest benefit of FirstNet for utilities

FirstNet is now a significant part of Loudoun Water’s communications infrastructure. We sleep a little bit better at night knowing that we have something that is robust and highly secure. FirstNet is a significant upgrade over consumer-grade cellular service. From a cost-savings standpoint, FirstNet has helped us significantly by reducing windshield time. Previously, we would have to visit remote facilities to change settings, to get video surveillance information, and to update access security information. Now, because of FirstNet, we don't have to make as many trips to these remote facilities. We can automate many of those activities.

The FirstNet team has been collaborative in working with us to help us identify what's new and what solutions we might want to add. It's been an excellent relationship over the years as we've grown our use of FirstNet and we’ve appreciated their support. 

Mike Beardslee is the Managing Director of Technology Services for Loudoun Water in Virginia.