Communication Technology, Executive Insight, News, Outage Management

‘What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate’

Lead image from the trailer of Cool Hand Luke. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment [Public domain]

Anyone who’s ever had to bring together crews for a major restoration has faced a moment that could conjure up a line from the classic movie “Cool Hand Luke,” in which the prison warden wryly says, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Utilities and contractors share responsibility and frustration in equal parts when it comes to offering and acquiring crews for restoration. But the focus of this column is the contractor’s point of view. Leading up to and during an event, contractors want to know as soon as possible if their crews and equipment will be picked up. Contractors also face challenges in quickly and accurately filling out crew rosters requested by utilities. That’s partly because there’s no standard layout (e.g., name, title, skill set, etc.) for how to present a roster to a requesting utility. There are a few areas across the U.S. that have implemented a common roster, but these rolls cover investor-owned utilities (IOUs) or municipalities or cooperatives – seldom all.

“A common roster would help,” says Steve Gilkey, executive vice president for Operations at MasTec, a global transmission and distribution contractor. “If everyone had visibility into who was on a system, then they’d also see they were potentially hurting restoration from a national perspective. There has to be a better way for a greater good.”

Some former utility professionals as well as contractors highlight two issues. First, as well-intentioned as the mutual assistance programs are, the processes cover the acquisition of resources allocated through their respective mutual assistance groups, not those acquired outside their established process. Second, there are contracting companies using retirees, union halls or combining smaller companies to work under a common name. These are not bad options; they do provide additional resources. But during times when a contractor is waiting for word from a requesting utility and unsure if its crews will be picked, the contractor’s line workers will eventually look to make storm-pay rates with an impacted utility and jump at the chance to hire on with a contractor already selected. In some cases, that leaves contractors with projects understaffed, while its workers travel elsewhere to “work a storm.”

“It seems like no two rosters are the same, which means a lot of data entry on the contractor side,” adds Brian Standish, vice president of business development for Quanta Services, a provider of electric power and pipeline infrastructure services. “It is very time-consuming – when crews are moved from one utility to another in the middle of the storm – to have to duplicate the same information on a different roster sheet.”

When a utility initially contacts a contractor, their discussion usually centers around establishing availability; that conversation may translate into a formal request. Once their conversation ends and the contractor awaits a decision, this same contractor may field calls from other utilities. Balancing new conversations is no easy task. Over the years, contractors have built relationships with utilities, and, at times, it’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs. The contractor must gather resources, divide them among the requesting utilities and complete the respective rosters for different parameters. Without a standard template, contractors answer the same question repeatedly, which delays rostering, crew building and restoration.

On the way to the goal of restoring power for customers, contractors can feel left out of the information loop. One reason for that is the “loop” is often an open-ended one, meaning the circle of information includes non-standard, manual processes between utilities and contractors attempting to exchange resources as quickly as possible.

A rostering bottleneck

Imagine a large outage, perhaps 500,000 customers, that requires EEI’s Resource Allocation Management Program for Utility Personnel (RAMP-UP). RAMP-UP gives EEI members a way to enter requests as well as availability for resources and, in turn, serve up a consolidated view of responses. The system then determines an equitable share of resources for each requesting utility. Many of these resources are contract crews.

Once RAMP-UP allocates the resources for the impacted utilities, contractors face a challenging question:  How do I get rosters completed and delivered to the utility requesting them? For example, once a utility agrees to release its contract crews, the receiving utility will typically email or call the contractor confirming a certain number of workers have been allocated and ask for a roster as quickly as possible. The problem for the contractor is this:  Without an automated, centralized system for rostering and resource management, meeting that utility’s roster request may take up to a half day, depending on the day of the week (minimal office help on weekends) or number of resources.

Automated rostering for all

A partial solution might be instituting a standard entry template for resources by which utilities and contractors could agree. A standard would reduce a lot of the manual work and data re-entry, especially with regards to rostering and equipment entry. Creating a standard way to upload and share crews and equipment would help contractors and utility partners plan for and secure the right number of FTEs for restoration.

“It would be great if our people could pick from a mobile device the crews they want going and electronically send a common roster to our utility partners,” remarks Gilkey. “The utility could download the roster into whatever format managers want.”

With a standard that automates the rostering process, contractors could build rosters in a timely manner. If a contractor had any updates, the changes would automatically be made to the roster. In today’s world, if a crew foreman can’t join a crew, for whatever reason, the contractor has to rekey and send a new roster noting who’s absent and who’s taking the missing person’s place; that calls into question which version is the latest one. A utility manager could easily overlook a change like that. But there are more than a few ways to automatically update the original roster and store it, for instance, on a web portal. It’s not unlike how multiple users can store and edit documents via Web-based applications. With an approach like that, utility managers could see crew data as it changes and easily populate their internal roster template. That would mean less time for contractors to complete rosters and less stress for utilities.

By delivering a roster digitally via a template that mirrors changing conditions, a contractor might gain an extra measure of loyalty from its linemen and ensure its standing as a preferred provider. That type of system could eliminate a utility’s need to dedicate someone to manage rosters during major events. Ultimately, the utility would get a picture of the number and make-up of contract resources as events unfold, which would help managers assign work packets and forecast a restoration time.

Lead image from the trailer of Cool Hand Luke. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment [Public domain]