In the hours after Hurricane Irma — which packed a punch the likes of which people hadn’t seen since Katrina in 2005 — utility crews began snaking toward staging areas to restore service. One of those convoys traversing the southeastern U.S. toward Florida was swallowed up by gridlocked traffic outside Atlanta. The crews had little options other than to sit it out and wait for the traffic to clear up. Back home, the responding utility heard about their problem and tried to assist, but without knowing their exact location it was difficult to request help.
A Utility’s Moving Challenges
When moving resources after a major event across states to an affected service territory, job one is ensuring crews and equipment travel safely and efficiently. Responding utilities need to know where they can rest, eat and refuel along the way, even if they include fuel trucks as part of their convoys. Crew convoy leaders want to smoothly navigate toll booths, bridges and weigh stations to avoid bottlenecks. Requesting utilities want to pinpoint responding crews and accurately estimate arrival times.
One of the organizations that’s working to improve how our industry moves resources is the All Hazards Consortium (AHC). AHC is a network of thousands of public- and private-sector experts working together to share information, create solutions and coordinate investments to respond to disasters facing electric utilities and other critical infrastructure including transportation and telecommunications.
For example, the AHC’s Multi-State Fleet Response Working Group helped eliminate some of the toll issues utilities face by streamlining the E-ZPass, an electronic toll collection system covering a large swath of the Northeast and Midwest. The AHC’s Fleet Response Working group worked with federal and state officials to allow utilities to buy one device at an annual cost, listing all the relevant license plates on that account. Now when utilities from a large portion of the Midwest and Northeast send crews to respond to an event like Irma, the bucket trucks and other vehicles pass through E-ZPass tolls, while cameras record utility vehicle license plates and automatically send the charge to the approved utility or contractor. In turn, the responding utility or contractor can pass the toll charge to the requesting utility.
Sometimes help crosses international borders. There have been times when utility crews from the U.S. tried to cross into Canada and saw wait times of up to six hours as customs officials inspected convoys. For example, National Grid worked out a process to route employee rosters in advance of crews crossing the Canadian border, and the utility hopes to expand this process beyond New York State. National Grid’s and AHC’s work could be blueprints for utility managers and transportation officials concerned with bottlenecks in other regions.
Real-time Resource Management Keeps Tabs on Help
Here’s another way to safely speed up restoration: Utility managers and their public-sector partners should track and share data on road closures, options for fueling, food and lodging, and the direction, composition and speed of responding crews. With real-time resource management, a responding utility can map and follow the quickest, safest route. And the requesting utility can accelerate onboarding by, for instance, preparing work assignments farther ahead of time, while accurately identifying the type of resources arriving and the amount of time in the day that crews have left for work.
Not all GPS solutions allow for the live tracking of crews via mobile phones. But there are mobile applications now available that can pinpoint crews’ location and logistical needs for external crews. These applications enable utilities to manage contractors and mutual assist responders via mapping technologies that provide critical information including up-to-the-minute crew status, alternative routes and staging locations.
Building a Framework for Sharing
In fact, there’s a wide variety of information that a utility and its outside business partners can share to shorten the length of a storm. Much of this data is sensitive. Imagine information getting into the hands of criminals who would want to know about, say, which pharmacies in a storm-ravaged area were open to utility crews. Providing a platform, or trust framework, for this type of information is an undertaking by a sub-committee of the Fleet Response Working Group called the Sensitive Information Sharing Environment, or SISE.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, a “trust framework is any structure that builds trust among organizations or users for ” sharing information.” The SISE is a trust framework operated by the AHC and its partners from government and industry for sharing sensitive information before, during and after storms, disasters and more. SISE enlists the help of firms like StormCenter Communications Inc., which is addressing the need for real-time visualization sessions across government agencies and utilities that want to collaboratively track critical cargo and position crews and supplies.
As for that convoy stalled near Atlanta, if the responding utility had some version of the mobile mapping technology described above, the storm managers could’ve pinned down the caravan’s location or even re-routed the trucks. Instead, utility managers asked the state police to locate the crews and trucks and escort them. Once the police found the convoy, the troopers had limited options for expediting the crews’ movement. The roads were blocked with traffic and saturated ground made the median and grass alongside the narrow shoulder impassable for the heavy trucks. As traffic dissipated, eventually, the convoy moved on to where utility managers needed it.
What’s needed now are new tools, problem-solving and an even greater collaborative spirit to get help to where restoration takes place. The utility industry has always been (and will continue to be) about mutual respect and mutual help. It’s simply time to put those attributes into a higher gear.
About the author: Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org