Putting Data where the Work is during Disasters

As of Sunday, September 16, CNN reported that about 760,000 customers were without power in the Carolinas due to the impact of Hurricane Florence. Cities like Wilmington, N.C., are inaccessible due to rising flood waters.

As utilities from across the country send crews to help Wilmington and other places recover from Florence, technologies like mobile digital computers (MDC), rugged laptops and GPS have put data into the hands of field crews. Just a few years ago, one utility I know of had a stack of manuals for each of its trucks—topics ranging from construction standards to payroll—that would stand four feet high if stacked cover to cover. The days of the paper manual are quickly vanishing. But putting data where the work happens isn’t just about giving field crews the technology they need to restore service.

Another piece of this equation is tracking where external resources are in real-time, so managers can plan for their arrival, check them in, conduct safety briefings, provide additional information and issue them work.

For investor-owned utilities (IOUs) affected by Florence, requests for mutual assistance starts as part of the regional mutual assistance group (RMAG) to which they belong. Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) RAMP-UP software, which stands for Resource Allocation Management Program for Utility Personnel, is a multi-user application for handling requests for mutual assist crews during regional or national events. RAMP-UP gives IOUs a way to enter their requests, provide resources and match requests with crews and other resources offered. Some of the IOUs in Florence’s path made requests for thousands of line personnel; it’s typical that requests like these (and the corresponding offers of support) happen two to three (and sometimes four) days before a hurricane makes landfall. American Public Power Associations (APPA) and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) use similar groups and tools to plan, respond and restore power.

Delivering data to the point of need also means getting information to people in places beyond the public’s view like a service garage or emergency operations center. When we put data into the hands of a supply center manager, dispatcher or the person serving as the logistics chief within an Incident Command System (ICS), this includes information to properly provide work packets or divert a crew from an area such as Wilmington, N.C., which remained inaccessible as of Tuesday, September 18.

Once resources begin moving toward an affected service area, the requesting utility also needs to assess damage in order to get the proper equipment for the identified job site. The quality of that assessment ensures the right crew and equipment get tapped for the job, which, in turn, improves efficiency and restoration time.

As Florence passes, damaging winds and floodwaters begin to recede and it’s safe for damage assessors to fan out and determine conditions, the impacted utilities will send assessors into the field. As external line and tree resources arrive, utilities will give them a safety briefing and issue work even though all damage assessment isn’t complete. During these early stages the crews will perform their own assessment and relay needs (i.e., additional resources, material or equipment) until the damage assessment is completed. Coordination of these activities is extremely important to make sure each team’s location is known, who is in charge and when necessary switching and tagging procedures are followed to ensure the safety of the crews and the public.

Damage assessment is an excellent situation for putting data where the work is. By automating the assessment process (not changing it), utilities can remove many of the tasks that were manually handled during assessment (e.g., manually handing off maps, writing notes on a map and entering data into a spreadsheets) and collect damage consistently. By automating these process, assessors with a tablet or mobile device get real-time maps with circuits and equipment. The assessor or crew digitally submits the assessment to the storm center to view a summary of collected damage (by circuit, station, area, etc.), while automatically generating work packets and integrating with an OMS and WMS for assignment to the field. As with any good restoration, utilities must develop and test a “plan B,” even if never used.

Not every facet of putting data where it’s needed takes a sophisticated approach. Some things can be as simple as a broadcast message about, for example, what roads are still closed or which rivers are flooding. I know one utility in Florence’s path that is effectively using text, email and audio messages to mobilize hundreds of non-traditional employees (i.e., marketing, administrative, accounting) for storm roles such as wire guards. The utility also has the capability to alert civil authorities about the utility’s restoration plans. In year’s past, these kinds of alerts might have taken half a day or longer to complete by hand dialing workers.

Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, the overall process of mutual assistance has continued to improve significantly. In Katrina’s wake, the industry asked “How can we better prepare?” Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, propelled utilities to get even better about putting data where the work was happening. After Sandy the industry stepped up and developed processes to allocate resources at a national level. All three industry groups (EEI, APPA and NRECA) now work together keeping each informed and sharing critical information. These changes helped make restoration during Since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria successful.

Utilities are also increasingly looking for ways to capture data on resources and manage the information easily between utilities, contractors and local authorities. Restoration for an event like Florence can’t begin until it’s safe for crews and civil authorities to return to each affected locale. But a lot of the data that utility crews, operations centers and support personnel need to do their job is already in hand.

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 jnowak@arcos-inc.com


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