Utilities Always get Damage Assessment Done, but at What Cost?

At a recent conference, a speaker from a southeastern U.S. utility began his remarks by saying the open-loop, manual damage assessment approach at his company had delayed restoration. The presenter was an engineer, and he filled the role of damage assessor on many occasions. He explained how no two assessors record damage the same way. He highlighted the cumbersome process at his office where teams would wait to receive, then transcribe handwritten notes on the location of broken poles, transformers and more.

“Even the best manual processes have room for gaining efficiency, especially through technology,” he added.

Before I mention the three major components of restoration, I want to stress the need for a well-established, documented and tested restoration process. First is information, which comes from damage assessment; second is mobilizing the correct number and kind of resources; and third is having the material to restore service. If a utility knows with certainty it has, for example, 4,500 broken poles, then it can accurately allocate crews, equipment and resources. Also important is communication for keeping customers, local officials and utility leadership updated about restoration.


The challenges to damage assessment

Anyone who’s ever managed this process knows the problem. There are multiple handoffs of maps and information between storm coordinators, damage evaluators and field crews. There are always difficulties and delays interpreting handwritten assessments, especially when evaluators are non-engineers who can’t distinguish between a transformer and a recloser.

Each piece of missing information, request for clarification and search for broken equipment drags out the assessment process. This delays the right resources getting to the right place, which slows productivity, increases costs and stretches out restoration.

Most utilities (I would argue the vast majority) operate with an open-loop damage assessment process. In an open-loop process (i.e., manual or semi-manual), damage assessment can take hours (or even days) longer than a closed-loop (i.e., fully automated) approach. Here’s what I mean by open loop:  There are points in the process where responding, restoring and reporting are not always linked. For instance, when damage evaluators complete their assessment, the manual process of collecting, summarizing their findings and issuing work packets can slow down the prioritization and issuing of work to field resources. With a closed-loop assessment, utilities can better manage data collection, resources and how they position crews and respond in the field.

If a utility automates its assessment process it can close the loops and collect damage consistently. In a closed-loop, automated process, assessors with a tablet or mobile device get real-time maps with circuits and equipment. As they note damage from, say, a drop-down menu of choices, technology captures every assessor’s notes the same way. The assessor or crew submits the damage assessment report, which the network delivers to the storm center to view all completed jobs and a summary of collected damage (by circuit, station, area, etc.), while automatically generating a work packet and integrating with the OMS and WMS for field assignment.

Technology like this, which would tie to some kind of GIS, will not change a utility’s damage assessment process. It simply streamlines the steps in the damage assessment process, speeds up collection and transfers the data via a wireless network. Whatever tool a utility buys or builds to automate this process must be something that looks similar to the interfaces employees use for daily operations. A successfully implemented tool will have an employee using the system on a blue-sky day as, say, an inspector, and when a storm hits, the same employee will switch to his or her storm role and use the tool with a different workflow. That ensures adoption and widespread use.

The payoff in getting damage assessment right

Let’s assume, on average, a full-time equivalent (FTE) during a restoration costs $2,000 to $3,000 per day, including all overheads, equipment and lodging. Also assume a utility has been hit by a major storm and calls in 1,000 additional FTEs — everyone from linemen to vegetation specialists — to help with restoration. With a manual, open-loop process the damage assessment takes three days.

Automating the assessment process described above could reduce the assessment time by as much as two days. The quicker the utility identifies the damage, prioritizes and issues work packets the more time crews have to put on the lights. By automating the assessment process managers could see a significant increase in productive time (i.e., boots in the air or butts in the buckets). Even a conservative improvement of 10 percent (e.g., crews not waiting on material, job assignments or performing self-assessment) would reduce a five-day storm by $400,000.  

The conference speaker said his utility ultimately fixed its situation by automating its damage assessment process. The utility, he said, issued tablets to approximately 1,200 line crews and engineering and support staff. He said automation eliminated “all the issues with our paper-based process.” The process his utility uses begins with a mobile app linked to a back-office system. He explained how it takes advantage of GIS data and works on mobile devices. Storm coordinators use it to, for example, assign a user to a feeder and push assignments to their mobile device; any others assigned to the same circuit get the same feeder maps. In response to a hurricane, he said the automated process shaved two days off the manual assessment timeline. According to the speaker, the improved process helped better set an estimated time of restoration (ETR), too.

Getting assessments wrong can delay restoration. But inaccurate assessments can also cause restoration to happen sooner than stated. If damage assessments overstate the scope of repairs and a utility restores power early to a school district, shopping mall or residential customers who’ve rented a hotel room based on the ETR, the customers incur expenses or lose revenue.

Closing the loop on damage assessment links information, material and crews to reduce costs.

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 director of Utility Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at jnowak@arcos-inc.com

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