By James Menton, ClickSoftware
As severe storms and extreme weather occur with more frequency, most of the public expects utilities either will withstand the threats or quickly restore service after a disturbance.
Increasingly, utility operators are accessing a growing arsenal of technology tools for preparation and threat mitigation, damage assessment, communications and service restoration.
Such tools offer broad capabilities. For example, an advanced distribution and management system (ADMS) lets utilities integrate supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), outage management systems (OMS) and distributive management systems (DMS) into a single-pane administrator interface. Each of these controls has become crucial for meeting customer expectations and ensuring a profitable business approach.
Field service mobility enables a range of options to help solve related issues. These include real-time field assessment, multichannel communications, nontraditional data sources such as social media, geographic information system (GIS) and situational intelligence, to name a few.
Leveraging these new technology approaches, both platform-centric and mobile-based, enables utilities to perform:
- Effective situational intelligence gathering;
- Seamless damage assessment, service restoration or both;
- Efficient work force management; and
- Improved customer communications.
As mobile devices and applications become more prevalent in the utility sector, they offer critical damage assessment capabilities. These include diverse communications channels, speed, real-time data (photos, conditions, geospatial elements, etc.) and information on environmental conditions.
Situational Intelligence: Real-time Damage Assessment
The goal of situational intelligence management is to process all storm-related data quickly into a comprehensive, swift response on the part of first responders, utility workers, mutual aid and field service technicians. For example, all data from a natural disaster must be assimilated, understood and then presented quickly to the work force for action.
The incoming volume and velocity of this information can nearly overwhelm a system. Situational management enables real-time processing of such data and ensures immediate conversion into appropriate action and responsive communication. For field crews, it’s crucial to have accurate situational awareness during all stages of a storm. This includes field-based damage updates and assessments, customer texts and photos and information from municipal agencies and news media. A high-functioning situational intelligence platform is key to making all this possible and requires:
■ Geospatial reference: geographic capabilities that ensure technicians can monitor and respond to all land-based assets, customers and infrastructure.
■ Real-time updates:
- Network status, field logistics, customer information, asset data–all this information and more make it possible to effectively respond in critical storm situations.
- Sourced from multiple domains, an analytical situational intelligence platform combines all this data together and makes it readily available to field technicians.
■ Secure information transfer:
- Leveraging and sharing information inside and outside a utility depends on the integrity of the network infrastructure.
- Secure, stable channels ensure all stakeholders–administrators, field technicians, customers–receive accurate, time-sensitive updates.
An ADMS is crucial for creating and disseminating a real-time range of geographic visibility profiles. Incorporating an OMS, field technicians immediately can capture damage information, instantly apply it to the target area and drive restorative planning and response.
For administrators at the control center, ADMS-OMS provides an overview and visualization of areas affected by storm damage. Managers can perform accurate assessments and make more informed decisions using these comprehensive tabular and graphic displays. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of efficient integration when it comes to advanced utility-based systems such as ADMS, but the growing reliance on mobility has made such adaptation crucial.
Field Service Apps for Accurate Damage Assessment
Utility managers and administrators rely on ADMS to monitor a range of issues in real time. The system offers a location for maintaining event history and provides a central repository for all restoration operations. ADMS even can be used for training personnel based on its ability to simulate system faults and storm-like damages.
Although system-based damage appraisals via ADMS are critical, it’s still not enough to gain the most accurate picture of storm-inflicted damage. Such system-based assessment only goes so far. SCADA devices along with additional telemetry have gained in importance for performing on-the-ground, time-sensitive damage assessment.
Increasingly, field technicians are leveraging geographical and media-based tools to acquire accurate, damage-related data for a more effective event response. They’re finding that mobile-based applications, which use device-specific capabilities such as GPS and cameras, integrated with ADMS offer a powerful means of quantifying and responding to storm-related issues.
This type of information is critical during initial responses, but it’s also invaluable for maintenance in the post-event recovery stage. For example, field technicians find that an integrated, map-driven mobile application makes it possible to capture information about damage, associate it immediately with the geospatial asset and trigger, add or update an incident. Such applications also provide an accurate and dynamic estimated time of restoration (ETR) for use in storm dashboards and crew and customer communications.
Managing a Mobile Work Force
Field service applications offer access to a unified pool of resources that counteracts the divisions that exist at most utilities. Such a holistic view of work force resources leads to better optimization of management and dispatching. When you have damage assessments, crew locations and field conditions in a unified, real-time platform, you have a unique, competitive advantage.
Combined with other strategic solutions such as ADMS and GIS map functions, mobile applications can provide a comprehensive view for storm response based on situational awareness, current assignments and available field service technicians. Offering clear visibility into all work demands, these mobile applications ensure:
- Live status updates: mobile applications with embedded mapping provide field technicians with crucial, real-time asset information.
- Online/interrupted/offline connectivity: enables a mobile work force to address varied work environments from normal to severe with guaranteed network connections.
- Single operator management: One-to-many supervisory functions are critical to a successful storm restoration process.
- Simplified mobile on-boarding for mutual aid and contractors: offers checks and balances necessary to supplement an existing utility work force during a storm emergency; reduces the overall outage time and reduces the ETR from storm damage.
In addition, application development and device management are important to a mobile work force. How utilities approach each of these issues will affect how well technicians accomplish their tasks in the field.
Effective Customer Communications
Today’s work force is working everywhere, and they’re using every mobile device at their disposal–smartphones, laptops and tablets. The same goes for customers who expect unfettered access at all times and depend on utilities to provide immediate answers whenever there are questions. As utilities embrace new technologies to equip their field technicians, similar challenges arise when it comes to customer engagement.
The need centers on communication platform adoption to offer mobile applications for outage notifications, online bill payments and similar tasks. In addition, providing social media resources for information, texting alternatives and customer analytics that offer usage schematics and more are critical to an increasingly tech-savvy user base and increases customer satisfaction and customer engagement overall.
Mobile computing can make utility-related services available to technicians on an as-needed basis. This model is particularly attractive to utilities that continually seek ways to lower costs. Software developers, for example, can create scalable applications by accessing a comprehensive set of development tools and services using APIs from various solution providers (mashups) and other applications and making them available to a mobile work force or customer.
Moreover, the types of real-time situational awareness enabled by a mobile work force means utilities easily can analyze constantly changing conditions related to storm events to drive faster restoration plans.
Mobility also makes it possible to integrate a diverse work force. Eliminating those former silos and divisions enables utilities to establish more effective one-to-many administration control. That’s because they can use common tools for scheduling, dispatch, coordination and management.
Finally, geospatial capabilities based on advanced mapping technology ensure utilities can process more accurate storm-related damage assessments and deliver time-sensitive updates. As machine-to-machine communication and the Internet of Everything connectivity increases, utilities will be able to resolve issues before failures.
With a mobile work force, such developments could affect performance and the ability to recover faster from severe storm damage.
James Menton is utilities industry principal at ClickSoftware. Reach him at [email protected].