Process automation professionals make a good crowd to be with at trying times

Jan. 5, 2017
Paul Studebaker reflects on sharing historic and in some cases, traumatic events, with industry peers

Being part of the process control community has given me the privilege of being among automation professionals for days at a time at conferences, expositions and user group meetings. It’s great to be absorbing presentations, looking at products and software on the show floor, and rubbing elbows at social and networking events with our technology-obsessed, somewhat skeptical, polo shirt- and khaki/denim-wearing brothers and sisters of the closed loop.

Some of those occasions have coincided with historic and in some cases, traumatic events. Sharing those experiences with a large number of people, live and in real time in a public, yet cloistered community, has given me some of my most powerful memories.

The first was at an ISA conference in New Orleans in 1995, for the verdict of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was on the show floor as the time approached when the networks were expected to make the announcement. Quite a few exhibitors were using television sets in their booths for monitors and to present videos, and many had rigged makeshift antennas so they could pull in broadcast TV. As the moment approached, each of these TVs gathered a crowd of people. The reception was bad and the speakers were small, so as the verdict was about to be announced, the whole show floor fell silent. When the announcers proclaimed “not guilty,” the crowds of attendees reacted with cheers…or not. In that place at that time, there weren’t a lot of cheers.

The most traumatic was the Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 (9/11) attack on the World Trade Center in New York, which took place during that year’s ISA conference in Houston. ISA at first announced that the show would go on, but as people became more concerned about the safety of their homes and families, organizers shut it down early at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Before the show ended, thousands of automation professionals continued to attend sessions, visit exhibits and make the best of the situation.

On Wednesday, ISA cooperated with the City of Houston to hold a blood drive at the conference center, with participation by many conference attendees and exhibitors.

Air traffic was shut down, then snarled for about a week, leaving many people extending their stays for days before flights resumed and they could get home. Others shared rides, rented cars and boarded chartered buses to cities all over the country. Part of our team returned on a chartered bus, while I joined three other editors in a rented car back to Chicago.

Experiencing 9/11 at ISA with like-minded, calm and especially sane engineering and technical people means I wasn’t there in person to support my wife and family, but it also spared us the opportunity to endure the endless, repetitious, speculative and fear-mongering coverage and conversations that I have since suspected may have subjected many Americans outside of New York to second-hand post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in poor judgment about the degree of risk posed by terrorism in the United States. Think about it.

The most recent such event was at Automation Fair on Election Day and especially, the day after. Many of the people on the show floor seemed to have a little extra spring in their step, and there was some gnashing of teeth and genuine tears in the press room, but overall, as in times past, the automation community carried on, apparently more focused on the great technology, know-how and use cases than the turmoil in the outside world.

As we put 2016 behind us and prepare to navigate our way through 2017, I hope like me you are able to enjoy being part of the process automation community, and to draw on the strength of its calm and especially sane engineering and technical people to help you make a better world. Happy New Year!

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