Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor
Let’s be honest. Before that blackout that took out a solid chunk of the Northeast this summer, call centers and outage management articles were probably the ones you flipped past with little interest. After all, such works don’t have the over-arcing storyline of technology development, nor do they have the interesting twists of new engineering feats.
On the contrary, call centers and outage management facilities are the Cinderellas of the utility industry. They’re there for the grunt work, but they never get the glory–until something goes horribly wrong. Unfortunately, then, this Cinderella’s trip to the ball is usually a hurried and unglamorous one–full of angry and angst-ridden phone calls and no fairy godmother in sight.
However, it doesn’t have to be. As utilities Georgia Power and Jackson Energy Authority can tell you, preparation and a good plan can make all the difference.
Georgia Power gets Interactive
Georgia Power, the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, is an investor-owned utility serving 2 million customers in 57,000 of Georgia’s 59,000 square miles. To prepare for disasters as varied as hurricanes, microbursts and tornadoes–as well as the occasional, if unusual, snow, ice or blackout–across such a wide area, Georgia Power has begun training its emergency employees using a two-hour interactive computer simulation developed by Apogee Interactive Inc.
“Through this one simulation course, we can walk employees through an array of scenarios that might take them a year or more to experience on the job,” stated Susan Gilbert, president of Apogee Interactive.
Derek Goodwin, senior engineer with distribution and business architecture for Georgia Power, agrees. Goodwin was Georgia Power’s lead for developing the simulation with Apogee. He came up with the scenario and worked with the test system that led to the final program. He’s also the primary for rolling out the program in 54 areas around the state. He spoke with Utility Automation in August about the strengths of this simulation program and the process of its development.
“We decided to simulate an ice storm [in the program], as it gave us a good wide range to work with,” he stated. “A lot of the events within the simulation came from actual experience. We just sat down as a group and discussed events we had personally encountered, as well as how the trouble-call management system operated. We wanted to incorporate all the types of events that restoration directors would need to be familiar with.”
“An ice storm has a lot of features of a hurricane–it’s widespread,” stated John Sell, a spokesman for Georgia Power. “But, also, it has intense pockets which mirror a tornado scenario, where you’d have to dedicate more people to a certain area. It also encompasses everything you would do on a normal outage to restore the system. It’s symbolic of most of the restoration we have to do.”
Jackson Energy Authority’s underground bunker allowed them to coordinate the clean-up effort from the May 4 tornado from an undamaged, fully functional site.
On initial rollout, this interactive simulation has only one scenario–the ice storm–but the scenario itself contains approximately a dozen separate interior events. According to the company, each employee working through the program must assess, prioritize, dispatch and manage the outages. Sell and Goodwin stated that the company is looking into adding other scenarios in the future, but that the ice storm was the perfect, all-encompassing place to start.
“[Our workers] are doing the same exact actions they would be doing in a real outage/storm situation; it just lets them do so in an atmosphere of less risk, allowing them to learn the right way of doing it,” Goodwin added.
“You can stop a simulation and correct a wrong decision,” Sell added. “In real life, in real time, there’s no time to stop and rethink things. This just gives us the option to make the correct decision an immediate reaction when the real thing comes along.”
JEA Sees a Real Tennessee Tornado
The “real thing” came along for Jackson Energy Authority in Jackson, Tenn., earlier this year. On May 4, the city was struck by a tornado that left 11 dead and millions of dollars in damage. In its aftermath, the utility was faced with connecting 28,000 customers, including several large companies like Proctor & Gamble and Nissan.
They managed to complete the task in two weeks and credit their “bunker” for disaster recovery as a major part of that process. The bunker, which was installed after a 2001 tornado, houses the utility’s response and communications team. Three levels underground, it withstood the force of the storm.
UA spoke with Jackson Energy Authority’s operations manager, Jim Ferrell, and manager of customer services, Sam Turner, about the bunker and their recent tornado experience.
“The main purpose behind the bunker was to have a facility that would survive a major disaster,” Ferrell said. “So, we put a lot of the critical equipment inside: our customer service computer, our network computers, our telephone switch, our SCADA system. And, we also put part of our customer service group and our monitoring group in the bunker.
“The idea was, if something did happen–as it did in May–we could still maintain contact with our customers and be able to run various parts of our system from here,” he added from his perch inside the bunker itself.
Aerial view of the May 4 tornado damage in Jackson, Tennessee.
When the May 4 tornado hit at 11:38 p.m., the utility was able to gather employees into the bunker to react to the tornado’s damage and to begin taking customer service calls–within an hour of the disaster. (They have regular hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.)
“With the call center in the bunker, we could assure that–as long as we had telephone connectivity to the Bell facility–we could be here for the customer,” Turner stated. Of course, it helped that the utility’s bunker has a direct underground feed to the phone company, which is only about 200 yards away.
In the first eight days alone, customer service representatives handled 20,701 calls with an average wait time of five seconds in that bunker, according to the utility. (Turner stated that the average number of calls in a normal month was only 18,000.) According to Turner, 80 percent of incoming calls that first day were answered within 20 seconds, and, over the two-week outage time, the utility managed to keep up a 94 percent call ratio in 20 seconds.
“This is a very customer-focused environment,” Turner pointed out, adding that most of the utility’s use of telereps (representatives who work outside of the call center from their own phones) and emergency call center facilities, which were damaged in the tornado, was impossible. So, they crammed everyone they could into those 12 permanent seats within the bunker.
“Several of our own buildings were also damaged in the tornado. One was completely destroyed,” Ferrell added. “The bunker was about the only usable building left to operate out of, which was the concept from the start, really. So, it worked.”
After the tornado hit, most of the staff worked out of the bunker on a temporary basis before moving into some temporary trailers. According to Ferrell and Turner, the company is just now “getting [their] breath back” after all the problems with the storms.
With this third major tornado to hit the area in five years, Jackson Energy Authority may be in a unique position to give experienced advice to other utilities in the areas of call centers and outage management. Ferrell says have a plan, involve everyone in the company–not just the official recovery managers–and think of the little things: having someone on staff with a less-immediate job, like someone from accounting, bringing in food for the work crews and establishing lodging for outside help, even coordinating laundry services.
Turner added that reps need accurate data, especially in times of disaster. Jackson Energy Authority has an intranet that gives the representative the latest information about the locations of work crews and power restoration, which those representatives can then pass on to the customers.
“I can’t stress enough, for a call center, the need for up-to-date information and the consistent dissemination of that information,” he stated. “Communicate with the customer.”