High-speed communication for the utility industry

Randy Bozeman and Lynn Barousse, Dialogic Communications Corp.

May 13, 2003 — During a service interruption, a utility company has to function at an optimum level of performance. Management and employees must respond swiftly to a number of different audiences who are directly and indirectly affected by the service interruption.

Employees, large commercial clients, public officials and private citizens, and in the case of an emergency, public safety organizations, are all dependant upon utility services to maintain business operations and quality of life.

From a communications standpoint, if a utility is unprepared for a significant service disruption, its ability to proactively address the needs of its customers quickly and accurately is dramatically hindered.

As a result of inadequate communications, a utility can lose substantial revenue in a matter of hours. And perhaps even more importantly, it may sacrifice customer service in the scramble to bring its operations back on-line. No one notices a utility company when the switch works. Everyone notices when it does not.

A rock-solid means of communication can be a utility company’s greatest ally when a significant service interruption occurs. One innovative and highly effective technology available to utility companies is high-speed notification. This technology enables a single dispatcher to initiate a crew assembly with the push of a button; it can notify thousands of commercial and residential customers in a matter of minutes; it allows a dispatcher to customize a message and selectively choose the recipients.

But most importantly, high-speed notification technology greatly reduces the expense of precious man-hours. The system frees trained professionals from routine, non-skilled activities, allowing them to execute more important and specialized tasks.

How it works

Essentially, high-speed notification technology functions like a phone tree, without requiring the time and energy of valuable human resources. The software is designed to retain an unlimited contact list, which is updated consistently to ensure information accuracy. The list can be manipulated from a single personal computer.

Dispatchers pre-record, or record in real-time an incident-specific message that can be distributed contact list with a click of the mouse or phone call. In addition, a system operator can access and modify the system’s messages remotely, allowing greater functionality and usage. With high-speed notification technology, accurate and consistent information is immediately distributed to everyone involved via his or her preferred form of communication (land/cell phone, pager, fax, email, etc.).

GIS “desktop mapping” technology can also be utilized in conjunction with high-speed notification to contact any designated audience or targeted geographic area. Operators can route a message to reach a specific city street, a block of a downtown business district an entire tri-county area, etc. GIS integration can be extremely beneficial when an incident affects one specific area, or if different messages are required for varied audiences in multiple locations.

High-speed notification is not a new technology. In fact, it has been utilized in a wide variety of industries around the world for many years. Government agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy, as well as Fortune 500 companies, high-profile manufacturers and public safety operations routinely rely on the technology for communication with employees, management, response teams and the general public.

Yet, the use of high-speed notification in the utility industry has been minimal. In fact, outside the nuclear power realm, the full potential of this technology has been overlooked.

The technology’s ability to deliver clear, concise and consistent messages, coupled with its speed and accuracy, make it the most effective communication tool available on the market today. Directors of power utilities across the United States who have integrated notification systems into their daily operations have quickly realized the benefits. High-speed notification saves time and money. It is that simple.

“The integration of high-speed notification technology into our current work environment has had a positive impact,” said Tom Gibbs of the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company. “We can mobilize and act with even greater levels of responsiveness in various situations, and we have heightened communication efficiency within our workforce.”

Crew Assemblies

Before the advent of high-speed notification, a dispatcher in the event of a service interruption was required to manually call an extensive contact list to find available employees for service calls. This antiquated process is riddled with inefficiency and increases the potential for unclear or inconclusive information. The task of making individual phone calls is excessively time consuming, and can pull important personnel away from essential technical duties.

“Prior to integrating high-speed notification, assembling a two-man crew could take an hour or more,” said Gibbs. “Now, alerting every technician takes minutes. We no longer have to ask someone to come in and make phone calls in the middle of the night. The technology has really improved every aspect of the assembly process.”

With a notification system, a utility can gather an entire team in a matter of minutes. Workers arrive briefed and aware of the details of the situation. They meet and assemble necessary equipment, and are on site to solve the problem shortly thereafter, significantly reducing response time and dramatically improving overall efficiency.

This level of responsiveness strengthens public perception, and, from a financial standpoint, the benefits are two-fold. The most obvious is the drain on profitability that a service disruption can cause. The longer meters are idle, the more money a company loses. Secondly, assembling a crew through high-speed notification rather than manual methods avoids costly overtime hours. While a human dispatcher can be indispensable, making three hours of routine calls is not the most efficient or effective use of his or her time.

High-speed notification is also advantageous for employees. Through the automated system, they have a choice to accept or decline the call-in. If they accept, they must provide identification and then answer a series of questions that can both qualify or disqualify them for duty (e.g., drug use, alcohol consumption, overtime status, etc.) If an employee qualifies, he or she is briefed on the situation and the job requirements.

If they decline, the system instantaneously responds and calls the next person on the list.
One thing to note: transitioning from manual crew assemblies to a high-speed notification system is an adjustment in operations. Automation may initially seem impersonal and overly technical. But once dispatchers and employees familiarize themselves with the technology, the benefits become rapidly evident.

Measurement

To justify the purchase of high-speed notification technology, its results must be measurable. To accommodate this need, one of the most important components to consider is the ability to produce detailed reports.

These reports, which typically include information on call statistics and response times, serve as a valuable analysis tool for management, clearly indicating where organizational improvements should be made or where human resources are most vital in a specific situation. This control over information is extremely valuable. It provides management with the information they need to keep crews operating at peak levels of performance, whether the situation is routine or unexpected in nature.

In addition, reports assist in monitoring employee participation in emergency, time-sensitive situations. In the past supervisors relied on the accuracy of a dispatchers note-taking. But even the most conscientious individual can make factual mistakes after spending hours on the phone speaking with dozens of people. This is particularly crucial in a crisis situation, when the accuracy of information is essential. Using the reports, management can quickly determine who can and cannot respond, their estimated times of arrival and more.

With high-speed notification technology in place, information can be controlled and properly managed. As a result, this wealth of information provides utility managers with the ability to analyze operations to the smallest detail. This allows resources to be utilized efficiently, company response to be monitored and profits to increase.

“The implementation of notification technology has directly impacted our performance,” said Gibbs. “The most impressive measurement is that of the company’s Reliability Numbers and qualification times. In the first year using the technology, our numbers became the best in the region. Furthermore, the average crew assembly qualification response time dropped to one minute and fifteen seconds. These type of results are rewarding for the company and the customer. It’s a win-win situation.”

Curtailment Notifications

High-speed notification can also be used for curtailment. Similar to crew assemblies in an emergency situation, dispatchers are often pressed for time when the need for curtailment arises. With a database already created containing a utility’s largest power users, a dispatcher can instantly notify companies, requesting that they lower consumption levels.

High-speed notification allows companies to contact large customers about excessive consumption several days in advance. By doing this, a proactive monitoring approach has been created that provides these important customers with enough time to adjust their energy usage accordingly.

Utility executives may be hesitant to contact their largest customers and request a service curtailment through an automated computer. However, in most cases, curtailment agreements have already been established in the service area, and a working relationship between the utility and the customer has been established. To effectively switch to an automated system, a utility director must explain the benefits of high-speed notification to customers so when an automated curtailment is initiated, there are no surprises.

One of the greatest advantages of utilizing high-speed notification for curtailments is its ability to distribute multi-message notifications instantly. A dispatcher can send specific messages and requests to each of the utility’s largest consumers. If there is a crisis situation, a blanket notification can be distributed, warning of impending problems. When consumption levels are dangerously high, such as in cold winters or hot summers, this immediate contact can help avoid potential black or brownouts.

Emergencies

In an emergency situation, communication is a critical resource that can not be overemphasized. Severe weather, natural disasters, and now, the threat of terrorism can create chaos and disorganization that can dramatically impact millions of lives. Without warning, a utility company can be faced with an unprecedented demand that requires precise coordination with a sprawling and concerned audience.

In an emergency situation, every truck, every tool and every technician may be needed in a moment’s notice. High-speed notification technology helps manage this process with speed and reliability. Crew assemblies are launched without hesitation. Varying messages can be sent to personnel in the field, specific customers, law enforcement agencies, councilmen and the news media. And because messages may be recorded and distributed in minutes, progress updates are accurate and timely.

Finally, the issues surrounding homeland security are mounting. Safety measures, which previously did not affect the utility industry, are suddenly common practice. This heightened awareness requires that utility company officers communicate with their employees and other audiences on an advanced level. With no warning, a utility may be faced with unprecedented infrastructure damage. Dispatchers and management will have to coordinate field operations in the wake of a disaster. Taking communication precautions now will ensure that a utility is prepared for the unexpected.

Since 1982, hundreds of emergency, public and private organizations spanning 25 countries have integrated DCC’s notification and response solutions into their emergency and corporate communications networks, making DCC an established leader in high-speed notification technology. In 2002, DCC received an official U.S. patent for its advanced communication technology. For more information, contact DCC in Franklin, Tenn., at 800-723-3207 or visit www.dccusa.com.

The authors can be contacted at: randy.bozeman@dccusa.com; and lynn.barousse@dccusa.com.

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