Communication Technology, Executive Insight, Outage Management

How can a utility efficiently know who’s helping restore power?

Last November, I wrote a column, titled “Restoration Response: A Crew by Many Other Names,” in which I talked about common resource types. A few examples of these FTEs are distribution, transmission and damage assessment. As hurricane season peaks and calls for mutual assistance spike, the benefit of presenting resources in a common way are threefold:  efficient knowledge transfer, reduced costs and customer satisfaction. 

If the industry is willing to move to a commonly accepted format (i.e., roster or platform) for exchanging resources, the utility companies and technology vendors could develop solutions to efficiently exchange the necessary information to reduce workload and free up time for those impacted. There’s value in a platform for getting utilities and contractors on one page. For example, project-planning software makers often provide “freemium” versions of their products to introduce potential clients to a system, while allowing them to manage a project. If the industry could get behind an effort like this, I believe we’d see the following benefits.   

Efficiently sharing what we know

First, there’s the transfer of knowledge about the make-up of resources that utilities request, especially during events like Hurricane Dorian. In my travels, I see various types and formats of crew rosters sent from utilities and contractors who answer the call for mutual assistance. Over the years there have been efforts to standardize some of the formats by a few of the regional mutual assistance groups, or RMAGs, but as an electric industry (i.e., IOU, cooperatives and municipalities) there are still multiple formats. When these varied rosters pour in, the employees receiving them become bottlenecked as they analyze, vet and standardize the information. For most utilities, that process means lots of eyes and keystrokes to put data in the right format for the people in the field to take action. 

Decades ago, utility staff would print out rosters and field supervisors would check in crews arriving from neighboring utilities and contractors. There’s a lot that hasn’t changed since that time. As an industry, our goal is delivering help, but doing it efficiently. The threshold within which to meet customer expectations keeps narrowing, so our industry has to look for ways to safely speed up the process, one of those ways is efficient accounting for who’s coming to help. That boost in efficiency gives us a better look at operations, logistics and the fleet services required, which ultimately can improve restoration times.

Reducing costs

Cataloging and displaying resources – whether crews or equipment – in a common way frees up managers’ time, eliminates mistakes and generally saves money. The quicker a utility knows who and what’s on property, the faster managers can get people into the field to restore power. Gaining a quick, accurate, digitized look at resources also helps logistics managers acquire the correct amount of hotel rooms, meals and gallons of fuel. When managers don’t have good information, there’s a ripple effect of delays and costs. For instance, think of a utility bringing in, say, 400 people to a staging site; as they muster for instruction and a meal, the convoy arrives and there is a total of 450 FTEs. The roster, which showed a total of 450 FTEs was delayed because it was either unclear or still being processed and nobody communicated with the convoy to determine the actual number. Now the field supervisor has 50 additional people for whom he or she must find meals, lodge and issue work. Here’s another scenario: Imagine getting a crew but important information about the type of truck they’re arriving in is missing or appended to another document. That one oversight can slow up the processing of the roster, ordering additional fuel or making job assignments. 

Satisfying customers

In the scenario above, we have resources possibly waiting to be issued work or for a decision to be split up and sent to another location. This slows restoration and increases costs. Picture a local television reporter and camera operator juxtaposing shots of downed lines and broken poles with footage of the crew waiting by their truck. The potential errors that stem from receiving so many different types of rosters can bleed into unwanted media attention and delay restoration. Conversely, by eliminating the manual entry of rosters, a utility can speed up restoration, keep costs down and improve customer satisfaction with real-time, standardized data. 

Here’s how a common roster can help

When a utility is planning for a major event, managers will start asking how many resources they need including categories such as distribution linemen, transmission linemen, damage assessors, tree or vegetation experts, substation professionals and management teams. Each individual makes up what I refer to as the “stick count.” 

The call then goes out from the impacted utility managers for resources from their respective RMAG, sister companies and contractors. As the responses come back, the utility preparing for the event will be juggling and balancing offers of various numbers from different sources based on type of resource, travel time and other factors to arrive at the appropriate resource need. In some instances, a utility manager requesting resources can – on a single call – make a request for, say, line mechanics, get an offer, accept the offer and commit to using them. But once the utility commits to accepting the resources, these individuals are on the impacted utility’s dime. After all the request and calls, the final number of resources arriving is usually higher because of the additional FTEs supporting the workers. Often a request for 800 resources ends up being anywhere from 820 to 880.

It is in the final stage of committing to accept resources where the common roster could greatly help the utility “true up,” or verify, its stick count and pinpoint exactly who’s coming to help. The common roster could help validate the classifications of the workers being sent and easily process the right number of people and positions. A manager could instantly see with the common roster how many of the resources are damage assessors, fleet mechanics, line mechanics and support staff, which gives the logistics team an exact look at how much lodging, food, material and fuel they need on hand.  

Until a manager has experienced the process of requesting resources and managing the logistics linked to the request, the complexity and costs are largely unnoticed. Achieving a common approach to requesting and accounting for resources would have a remarkable impact on restoration. With major events like Hurricane Dorian, hundreds of hours are spent manually requesting, double-checking and verifying that the resources requested are, in fact, where they’re supposed to be and in the numbers anticipated.