Guest Column | February 21, 2014

Water Cybersecurity: Alarming, Autodialers, And The Resistance To Change

Darian Slywka

By Darian Slywka, Western Channel Manager for eWON


It is 2:00 AM on Saturday morning. It is a cold, frigid night. The booster station maintaining water pressure within the distribution system has unexpectedly shut down. The autodialer checks for a dial tone, then calls the first standby operator and plays the prerecorded message, “Booster Station Shutdown Alarm” it repeats, “Booster Station Shutdown Alarm,” “Press 1 on your touch-tone phone to acknowledge this recording.” The operator presses the 1 key on his phone. A potential outage is likely. Customers will be disrupted. The operator has no idea what has happened, or the appropriate tools to bring to the solution. The operator is blind… 

All too often this scenario is repeated nationwide across thousands of small communities, municipalities, and even larger water utilities. Legacy equipment is rampant. Generally, infrastructure does not get upgraded until a catastrophic event forces the hand of decision-makers usually at the anger and frustration of the affected customers.

Still today, autodialers, dialup modems, and even licensed radio modems are specified by regulators to provide “advanced” alarming for water system operators. Often, these outdated solutions are still added to bill of materials and design specifications by engineers. Regulators and legislators are partially to blame adhering to legislation that is many years behind technology advances.

System operators and owners follow the advice and legal requirements set forth by the EPA administered by state regulatory agencies. Most system operators may not be aware that technology exists to aid in more efficient system operation nor do operators want to introduce advanced technology with the potential for failure.

Today’s industrial connectivity devices offer far more advanced features to aid in both efficient water system operation as well as provide enough information required to allow system operators to make immediate informed decisions minimizing downtime and optimizing system operation. Slowly, autodialers, licensed radio modems, and legacy infrastructure are being replaced by intelligent-alarming, notification, data-historian, information, automatic-reporting, and connectivity systems. An operator no longer has to rely on a prerecorded message with limited information. Current technology allows an operator to receive an alarm based on actual system conditions, see additional information, and securely connect via an encrypted connection to both the central plant as well as remote stations to operate the water system as efficiently as possible.

Rather than resist technology, embrace the advancements that can aid in substantial efficiency gains within both the water plant and distribution system. Find technology that offers advanced alarming, data logging, and secure remote access.  Reduce the need for multiple standby operators to respond to emergencies and instead focus on preventative maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, and overall efficient use of human, technical, managerial, and financial (TMF) resources.

Ultimately, system operators and owners are graded on three key factors;

  1. Has the system regularly produced and distributed potable water within the federal and state guidelines?
  2. Technically, financially, and from a managerial perspective, has the system been operating as efficiently as possible with a minimal amount of unscheduled downtime, disruption to customers, and emergency outages?
  3. Is the system owner funding infrastructure improvements and efficiency gains in addition to meeting the future demands of the population it serves with resources set aside to meet these challenges?

Technology in combination with advanced alarming and the correct attitude of both system owners and operators can help in fostering a water system with improved alarming, efficiency, and overall system operation, while minimizing emergency events. If you work for a utility that still uses autodialers, pray that the next outage does not occur on your shift, or perhaps better yet be proactive in finding and recommending technology that can help, reduce, or minimize emergency events.

© 2014 Darian Slywka licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.

About the author: Darian Slywka is the Western Channel Manager for eWON, a Belgium-based industrial remote connectivity company providing secure solutions to OEMs, integrators, and infrastructure projects. His background and education includes environmental engineering, cyber-security and business development. He is licensed in water treatment and water distribution and holds certifications in technology, networking, and more. Find him at

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