The Role of Mobility in Combating Extreme Weather Events

Combating Extreme Weather Events

BY MIKE KARLSKIND, CLICKSOFTWARE

Energy utilities conduct diligent emergency planning; however, there is increasing scrutiny from legislators, press and consumers to provide coordinated, rapid emergency response and greater public notification during power outages.

During the third Senate Budget Committee hearing on Hurricane Sandy, Bob Hanna, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said the state’s utilities failed to communicate with customers and mayors after the storm and the subsequent nor’easter.

Massachusetts legislation requires utilities to provide customers with estimates on when electricity will be restored three times a day after an initial 24-hour damage assessment. This requires utility executives to make media statements on short notice with whatever information is available. The ability to communicate effectively to external audiences is impacted largely by a utility’s ability to communicate internally.

Utilities are challenged to meet new, rapid-response and communication requirements despite existing pressures of an aged infrastructure and demands to keep energy prices down. Increasing the penetration of mobility into field service operations focused on intelligent mobility will allow utilities to gain clear, real-time visibility into restoration efforts and support rapid, accurate decisions and communications to employees, executives, customers and stakeholders.

By addressing three areas, restorations can leverage crews more effectively, restore more outages per hour and ensure the intensity during the beginning of a storm persists through the end of restoration (and this work is communicated well to all key audiences):

  • Define and deploy a strategy for mobile communications in large emergency events in which many crews are from other companies under mutual assistance.
  • Systemize and automate job assignments and communication according to prescribed policies for assigning and dispatching work, as well as feedback from the field.
  • Gain management visibility into the extent of storm damage (current and expected), workload requirements and status of restoration efforts at crew and asset levels.

MOBILE COMMUNICATION STRATEGY AND IMPLEMENTATION

During large emergency events, visibility is easy when the workers are yours and are using your processes, mobile tools, reporting forms and chains of command.

The moment mutual assistance is needed, however, much of that is lost as foreign crews attempt to join an existing team midcrisis.

Everything consumers get is instant, from bank accounts to news and the kids’ whereabouts. The expectation in emergency situations is for even greater immediacy, and with only partial and delayed visibility to assisting crews (which may nearly double the work force, i.e., cover nearly half the immediate restoration), visibility to the internal work force becomes insufficient.

It’s time to digitize the planning and scheduling aspects of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) Mutual Assistance Network. Typically, EEI regional committee members vet mutual assistance needs and liaise among utilities to arrange backup crews to help utilities deal with disasters. Today, execution of this mutual assistance program happens via paper and phone calls and creates lag in getting the right resources to the right places. Once on the scene, supplemental crews face more inefficiencies as they must rely on old-school communication methods such as face-to-face gatherings at meeting points to wait for orders.

Here’s a quick but long-lasting fix. An HTML5-compatible mobile application enables any smart device or compatible browser to become a mobile extension of the back office that can provide a standard means for dispatching work and receiving updates no matter from which company a crew originates. It works offline in areas or periods of no coverage, provides a single source per utility for all field updates and requires minimal setup. This provides a direct means for the host company to send work and instructions and receive status updates on completed jobs, expected time until restoration, capture of working and fatigue hours, all in near real time to customers, press and regulators.

By deploying device-agnostic mobile solutions and enterprise apps that connect field-workers and executives to back-office systems, everyone in the organization gains visibility. Field-workers can communicate with one another easily; outage dispatchers can assign jobs quickly based on location and status; executives in the field during emergencies can view up-to-the-minute dashboards to brief stakeholders. All this information can be culled together to update customers via text, phone or a customer-focused smart phone app.

AUTOMATED PRIORITIZATION

To efficiently mobilize mutual assistance crews, utilities first must focus on prioritizing and automating work order assignments. Automated prioritization of tasks is critical for the utility industry in general (given the number of aging assets, organizations must work ahead of breakdowns), but is a game changer to disaster response. It’s not always realistic to take an all-hands-on-deck approach during emergencies, given some previously scheduled jobs might be necessary repairs to ensure no further outages. Given the complexities of assets, employees and tasks, an automated prioritization of tasks ensures that a reshuffling of employees and jobs is done based on an organized system.

The criteria of safety and critical facilities first and then restoring energy assets in the order of customers impacted has been around for some time and provides clear guidance for the operation. Companies, however, lack specific policies for prioritizing emergency jobs among one another. Likewise, the criteria for crews to pull from an area in support of another vs. those that should stay put and wait for a local problem generally is not defined in a systematic way. These business rules should guide decision-making for resource allocation when hurricanes, fires, earthquakes or other natural disasters occur, which allows more immediate and consistent execution of fieldwork.

Utilities have access to publically available storm data from past events. For instance, the Department of Energy (DOE) report “Comparing the Impact of the 2005 and 2008 Hurricanes on U.S. Energy Infrastructure” gives comprehensive details about hurricane activity, outages, specifics on generation, transmission and distribution failures and outage causes.

By using historical storm data to predict storm scenarios and their impact on the work force, utilities can anticipate the assets and technician skillsets that will be needed, approximate work force demand and prioritize the order and proportion to deploy field resources. Conducting predictive analysis and setting storm restoration process policies can help utilities better position themselves to have the required resources and infrastructure once storms hit. But that’s only half the battle.

IMPROVED MOBILE WORK FORCE OPTIMIZATION, SCHEDULING

A concrete process for emergency response should be backed by immediate, automatic decisions about which crews will respond while others continue their work. Work force management integrated with asset management and ideally outage management enables utilities to forecast and plan for heightened demand, specifically around cyclic weather patterns. This also helps utilities achieve greater productivity-even during heavy demand-by intelligently scheduling employees and tasks based on physical location, knowledge base and other factors that help complete jobs faster.

Imperative and tangible steps toward streamlining and speeding response efforts include:

  • Creating an interconnected system that enables immediate sharing of named resources from one utility to another, blocking crews’ time in the sharing utility’s system and making them available for work for the host company.
  • Using intelligent and preprogrammed algorithms to match available backup resources quickly and intelligently with utilities’ specific needs and to react to field activities based on real-time feedback from the field.

The best industry practices will help large utilities better plan for disasters and remain in compliance with changing legislation. Taking advantage of the latest smart phone and tablet technology in tandem with a mobile work force management platform can streamline emergency response and keep management and the public more accurately informed.

Mike Karlskind is vice president of service optimization strategies at ClickSoftware. He has more than 17 years of experience in streamlining processes and optimizing decisions for service organizations in industries including computer services, utilities, telecommunications, capital equipment, home services, retail services, insurance and medical equipment.

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