A utility stands on the shoulders of its operation team—the people who keep the lights on, provide service for new customers and maintain or add to existing infrastructure. These team include a supporting cast of dispatchers, supervisors, store room employees, supply chain professionals and schedulers.
Technology—such as outage management systems (OMS), work management systems (WMS), resource management platforms and damage assessment software—can link the team together, but not always. When daily or blue-sky operations shift to dark-sky work, some industry vets have called the changeover organized chaos. Utilities always bring the lights back on. But there can be disconnects as a team transitions from daily operations to restoration mode.
What disconnects the team?
First, when the front line transitions from blue-sky work to dark-sky operations, line mechanics see subtle shifts from how they manage maintenance work versus restoration. For example, a line crew will have a mobile data terminal (MDT) in its truck, which they use daily for dispatch. During a storm, if the utility brings a resource management system or damage assessment tool online, the crews will likely recall basic training. But the subtleties of the tool (including some valuable features) may be lost on them because they don’t regularly use the platform. That unfamiliarity with a tool creates delayed response or even missed opportunities.
Second, a lot of technology comes into play with the shift from daily work to storm mode. Damage assessment software is one example. Another is the way dispatchers use their OMS during events to help track work, similar to how supervisors and schedulers use WMS during daily operation. These disparate systems, not always integrated, can create open loops in which workers lose time and data because they’re manually deciphering and transmitting notes.
Third, when wire guards or damage assessors join the restoration effort, these non-traditional workers meet unfamiliar conditions and processes. This can slow their response time as they recall training and come up to speed. Support players can also be contractors coming on property; even though they’re expert mechanics and tree trimmers, they may be unfamiliar with the system infrastructure and area.
Ways to bridge the gaps
Enlist your “native resources,” or employees. Tap journeymen and apprentices to coordinate external contract resources. Your line crews can mitigate a contractor’s unfamiliarity with the service area and processes. Native crew members can easily direct contract crews because they know the infrastructure, construction specifications and communications technology. They understand the switching and tagging procedures and can tag and lock out a breaker. If a contract crew is rebuilding a distribution line with several transformer locations and not sure about connections at the transformer, a native resource can guide them. In fact, a two-person native team could easily direct five to ten contract crews, while coordinating the work under their clearance. The contract crews, in turn, know they have to work through the native journeymen to energize any part of the system.
Utilities should (whenever possible) use the same technology for daily operations as well as dark-sky work. ComEd and Eversource both adopted systems for around-the-clock resource management because they know it’s difficult to transition from one crew-building process for blue-sky and another for major outages. If a utility’s line mechanics routinely handle inspections, then make your inspection tool one that allows crews to move from daily operations to damage assessment seamlessly — after all, the inspection and assessment processes are similar.
When a storm moves through a service territory and outage reports spike, instead of putting pencil to paper to account for what’s needed, imagine the dispatcher issuing outage tickets from your OMS to a tool used to electronically collects damage assessments. By integrating the assessment software and the OMS, the dispatcher could launch a work request (whether blue sky or dark sky) using the same tool. That makes a line crew’s job easier; the crew doesn’t need to learn a new piece of technology during storm response. Other technology tools that can be used for daily operation and dark sky can improve the overall restoration leading to customer satisfaction. For example, if the utility has an AMI, the dispatcher could also ping the customer’s meter and verify the crew’s work restored power.
The key for bridging disconnects is understanding that getting the job done (e.g., restoring service) can often mask open-loop processes or information gaps that delay response. In other words, when we’re successful we don’t think about the inefficiencies that may be part of our process. One coordinated team is better and safer than two.
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