Running Audibles at the A-Bomb Plant

Outfitting Pantex with a paging system called for ingenuity


Just one word describes it – unique. The place, the mission, the needs, the challenges are all one-of-a-kind. Amid fertile farmland in the Texas Panhandle sits the huge complex of buildings and bunkers known as Pantex, the final assembly/disassembly plant for nuclear weapons. Needless to say, safety is paramount here.

When the Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new plant-wide voice paging/emergency evacuation system arrived, we practically needed a forklift to unload it: two dozen pages explaining how Pantex wanted the system to work, six dozen pages outlining the work rules and paperwork and two rolls of plans, each 10 inches in diameter.

Half a dozen prospective bidders, including some of the big guys, showed up for the pre-bid meeting. Most of the questions went something like: “You don’t really expect the system to do that, do you?” And “Surely, you don’t mean …” But Pantex did.

Never before had there been a voice paging/evacuation system designed like this one. The Pantex engineers and the major engineering firm who drew the plans admitted they did not know if it was possible to build a system that met their design criteria. The engineers readily confessed they had not been able to find a manufacturer who could do what Pantex was requesting.

After the pre-bid meeting, most of the prospective bidders promptly ran as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Optimistically I thought, I can figure out a way to build that system. I spent most of my time at the NSCA Expo™ showing RFP sections to various manufacturers, and I quickly confirmed the assertions of Pantex engineers  that there was no single vendor who could do what Pantex wanted. There were, however, manufacturers whose equipment and software could meet different parts of the requirements. All we had to do was get these brands of hardware and software to talk to one another.

Pantex’s needs were simple: 5,000 ceiling speakers, 4,000 paging horns, 400 explosion-proof paging horns, and 17 equipment rack locations connected via fiber optic cable.

In addition to these needs, two existing, unused glass fibers were to be utilized as the transport backbone. Eight simultaneous voice pages were to be transmitted on one of these fibers. The second was to be used as a backup.

If either or both fibers were disabled, the location of the break had to be annunciated at a central control point, and no buildings were to lose paging. All speaker lines were to be supervised and any malfunctions were to be automatically reported to a central control point. Daily maintenance reports had to be automatically generated for plant maintenance.

Control needed to take place at a central point using a graphical user interface (GUI) on a computer monitor. If this control point were to malfunction, control had to switch automatically to a backup location one mile away. If the main control and backup control points were to malfunction, a manual switch was to route paging and emergency tones via copper telephone lines.

Everything had to be redundant: computers, power supplies, hard drives, fiber transceivers. In effect, if anything happened to any hardware or fiber anywhere, there had to be a backup method to keep paging operational to all buildings. Oh! And did I mention that the length of fiber optic cables tying all the equipment cabinets together totaled 26.5 miles?

After many hours of discussions with manufacturers, we figured out that we really could do everything requested in the RFP. It required minor software changes and a lot of creative thinking, but we did not have to customize any hardware.

Our proposal to Pantex integrated equipment from three major manufacturers. One manufacturer supplied control and operator interface hardware/software. One handled fiber transmission and supervision, while the third supplied amplifiers and network devices for control and supervision of speaker lines and reporting.

None of these three had interfaced with one another quite like this before, but all were willing to help make the system work – and work it does. Using standard communications protocols and analog switching, the independent manufacturers helped us create a complete system from parts not originally designed to work together.

The key to making this unusual project work was integration – creatively making hardware and software from multiple manufacturers “talk” to each other to solve a unique set of problems.

James Beckham is the president of Audio-Video Corporation, a systems integrator in Amarillo, Tex. Beckham is also a member of the NSCA Board of Directors and chairman of the NSCA Credentialing Council, which oversees NSCA’s certification program.