By Jim Nowak
This month the National Hurricane Center issued a report noting Hurricane Florence caused damages totaling $24 billion and 22 deaths. According to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), more than 40,000 utility workers and contractors helped restore power for more than 1.1 million customers hit by Florence. Along with the billions in damage are costs utilities pay to fix what’s broken. Even inside utilities, the price of the logistics effort isn’t always initially known.
Behind the scenes, utility managers bracing for Florence readied themselves, in part, by activating staging sites to refuel trucks, stocking additional supplies, implementing processes for issuing work, arranging for meals and, if necessary, housing workers. For events like these, tracking crews continues unabated until the coordinating utility releases each worker.
Imagine thousands of linemen traveling one or more days to assist with a significant event. The logistics chief for the impacted utility has to ask, “What’s the best way to give crews the comfort of knowing they’ll have a place to sleep, three meals per day and work assigned to them in an efficient manner?” Across the industry, managers and their teams tackle this job with a quilt of spreadsheets, whiteboards, emails, texts and phone calls. Managers and staff carry out the work largely by hand, but many are now automating these tasks.
Major events hurl personnel changes at managers that complicate the restoration process and, consequently, the accounting of costs. For example, imagine a crew arrives with the wrong equipment, which affects its ability to work efficiently in the impacted areas; a crew member becomes ill and can’t finish a shift. Or storm damage creates a delay for a supply truck, which has to take an alternative route. Until recently, a Northeastern U.S. utility I know of tasked a person who spent 30 minutes, every few hours over the course of any major event, consolidating data exclusively about lodging crews.
Logistics is an area ripe for automation because the complexities multiply with the addition of every crew and job. While many utilities expertly work through different scenarios once they’re hit with a variable, automated systems available today can take activities manually tacked to whiteboards and turn the data into information utilities can parse electronically, on the fly, to gain situational awareness.
How automation helps onboard crews
I recently listened to a West Coast utility speak at a conference and share its computerized onboarding process for crews arriving to help restore power during major events. Once the utility requests help, managers send arriving crews a list of questions regarding lodging needs, emergency contact information and details about the location of safety tailboards and shift schedules. The utility can also set up different scenarios in which it pre-deploys the crews to see which work schedules and sites are most efficient for each arriving team. The utility’s managers save time by comparing how they might divide crews based on skill set, equipment and supplies, instead of just keeping ahead of the onslaught with a set of whiteboards. Their proven, manual process doesn’t change; it’s simply more efficient.
Bringing any number of staging sites online is a logistics puzzle. For instance, how many people will the utility lodge per room? Best practices would suggest two employees per room, with supervisors bunking solo to complete paperwork that might keep them up late into the night. How far from a reporting location can the impacted utility allow workers to stay and minimize travel time from hotel to job site? The answer requires, in part, looking at the size of the hotel’s parking lot, whether there’s breakfast served and the likelihood of keeping crew members from the same company in the same location. If the conditions require it, a logistics team might have to turn to school gymnasiums, bring in bunk trailers, requisition tents or, in a worst-case scenario, ask line workers to sleep in their trucks for a night until an acceptable alternative becomes available. Avoiding these alternatives, including the associated costs, turns on planning and quickly reacting to changing conditions.
As restoration crews arrive, utilities generally dedicate staff to manually tally the number of crews against a shrinking list of motel and hotel rooms. Or, like the utility I mentioned above, logistics managers automate the process. With the automated approach, when the utility assigns an individual his or her work location, the utility’s system links the line worker with the nearest, available hotel room. If the worker checks into the wrong hotel, the workers are quickly alerted because a prior notification alerts the hotel as to who’s been assigned to its rooms. The automated system used by the Northeastern utility I mentioned above also gives managers a way to divvy up rooms while responding crews are traveling to staging sites. The requesting utility’s managers email or text foremen on route and tell them to inform crews about the hotel location and how many rooms with double beds or king-size beds they’ve earmarked for them.
The cost of miscommunication
Imagine the possible miscommunication and flurry of phone calls that ordinarily happen with the aforementioned scenario. The extra phone calls, keystrokes and conversations soak up minutes better used elsewhere and leave external workers concerned about lodging, which can detract from the job at hand. Multiply that problem dozens of times (or more) over several days or weeks and there’s a productivity drag hard to account for. And that’s just the permutations related to rooms.
Consider meals. When communication isn’t clear cut, crews might not realize meals are available at a staging site. Instead, they pick up breakfast at their hotel (or along the way to the staging site). The Northeastern U.S. utility that I noted has also automated meal-planning. They’ve done away with paper and electronic spreadsheets to track hundreds (or thousands) of meals per day, and they’re communicating (and confirming) the availability, location and preferences for crews’ meals. They’re wasting less food and money. And contractors and mutual assist crews know when and where they can eat.
That, in turn, reduces the need to task employees with logistics tied to rooms and meals. Instead, these utilities are focusing on higher-value assignments and getting crews to where the work is. Perfection will never happen. But when you’re putting up a staging site and it’s supposed to house 1,000 linemen and through miscommunication 100 of those workers end up booking hotels and motels elsewhere, the cost for beds and meals (unused and added to what’s already been allocated) can equal six figures over the course of an event. Without changing the way utilities work, the myriad manual tasks that bring a staging site online and keep it running can be handled automatically. That’s a solution that’s equal parts transparent and efficient.
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 email@example.com