By Mahvash Keshmiri, Ph.D.,
and John Wakefield
Computers have incredible potential for enhancing work force management at utilities. By embracing today’s technology, utilities can help employees work much more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Certainly, that has been the case with Washington Gas’ computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. Washington Gas first implemented CAD in 1991 as a means to automate the managing, scheduling and dispatching of work orders to service technicians. In September 1999, Washington Gas performed an upgrade to its system, completely replacing all CAD hardware and software. That upgrade has greatly improved field work force management and customer service for the utility.
“When we decided to upgrade our CAD system, one of our primary objectives was to find the most reliable, most efficient hardware,” said Joan Anderson, CAD project manager. “That was especially true for the equipment used in the field by our service technicians. Their hardware had to be very rugged due to the nature of conditions in the field.”
After considerable evaluation, Washington Gas settled on the use of ruggedized laptops. These computers are engineered to meet the demands of doing business on the road or in the office. They are water resistant, shock proof and extremely durable because of their magnesium alloy casing. The hard disk drives are mounted in shock-absorbing polymer compounds to provide further protection from vibration and shock. Flexible internal connectors between the hard disk drive and the system board protect against the transfer of shock between these components.
Today, each of Washington Gas’ 225 vans and trucks has been equipped with a ruggedized laptop computer. Unlike computers used in the old CAD system, these ruggedized laptops feature a 10-inch touch screen, which saves considerable time when service technicians need to enter information. No longer do they have to worry about keyboarding skills. The keyboard, however, is still available for entering specific remarks about the job when necessary. Each unit contains a 10 GB hard drive, which provides more than enough storage space to supply technicians with all the information they need to complete a job.
For each order, service technicians receive detailed information, including data about the customer, a brief history that includes the last three activities associated with the account, and map coordinates. Orders are updated or deleted in real-time, based on changes made by dispatch specialists or customer service representatives. The system also allows the validation of meter and remote-read information to be processed in real time against records stored in the company’s customer information system (CIS).
The “call ahead” feature is used to determine whether a customer is at home. This virtually eliminates unnecessary visits in which the service technicians cannot gain access. Washington Gas customers now are more willing to be available for their appointments because CAD gives the company the flexibility to schedule within a two-hour window, beginning at 7 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m. Previously, customers selected from morning, afternoon or evening options. If an appointment is unavailable for a particular date and time, CAD will offer several alternatives to meet the customer’s needs.
“Today’s customers have busy schedules, and we must stay focused on working within their time constraints,” said Karen Blumreich, CAD administrator. “The scheduling package in our CAD system gives us the capability to precisely match our customers’ needs with our work force availability.”
CAD in the Field
Once service technicians are on site, they can readily obtain information for accounts they are working on. All they need to know is the account number, phone number or meter number. This capability comes in handy, for example, if a customer’s next-door neighbor also needs assistance. The technician can originate and complete the order without the intervention of a dispatch specialist.
Still another major advantage of CAD is that some service technicians can drive vehicles home in the evening, log on to the system the first thing in the morning, and go directly to their first stop, which may be in their own neighborhood. As a result, they are able to work more productively while holding down mileage and wear and tear on company vehicles.
Service technicians now take CAD for granted, relying on it as their primary tool for work order completion. “I used to be intimidated by this laptop, but now I depend on it to complete my work,” said David Corcoran, crew leader. “I would be lost if it ever malfunctioned.”
To make the laptops as convenient as possible for technicians to use, the laptops are mounted on an easily accessible docking station next to the driver’s seat. The docking station has a built-in timer for power regulation and consumption.
Each of the Washington Gas’ 225 service vehicles has been equipped with a ruggedized laptop with 10-inch touch screen.
The laptops also carry a global positioning system (GPS) receiver. Having GPS enables the company to know where the vehicles are located and facilitates the dispatching of priority and emergency orders.
Because of the need for continuous communications, the laptops are fitted with an internal cellular digital packet data (CDPD) modem for wireless communications capability. By removing reliance on wired communications with its time and location constraints, the company enjoys true real-time information and data transfer.
For maximum efficiency, customized GPS and CDPD antennae are mounted on the service vehicles. Boosters were added to increase the CDPD signal from 0.3 watts to 3.0 watts.
Service technicians and dispatch specialists rely heavily on the facilities mapping system (FMS) technology that Washington Gas adopted in the late 1990s. FMS is a seamless electronic map and database of more than 1,000 square miles of Washington Gas’ service area available on computers. It shows the physical location of gas company facilities, such as distribution lines, regulator stations, service lines, shut-off valves and meters.
Washington Gas’ CAD system allows service technicians to received detailed customer information, including map coordinates, on their mobile computers.
Before Washington Gas started using FMS, facilities data was distributed to the field via aperture cards. The company’s franchise area is subdivided into more than 7,000 quad maps measured in 2,000-by-2,500-foot grids. Aperture cards are microfilmed copies of these quad maps and were considered state-of-the-art technology only a few years ago. Creating, tracking, disseminating and replacing aperture cards became logistically impractical. It was very difficult to ensure all service vehicles outfitted with microfilm readers were always using the most recent set of aperture cards.
By utilizing a specially developed product, the entire FMS database is replicated in each laptop and is available for viewing and attribute queries. Once a month, a complete, compressed database is distributed to all FMS users in the field to upload to their laptops via three CDs. The CDs are self-running, and the user simply loads the CDs when prompted. The update operation takes less than 40 minutes. The company plans to eliminate this step in the future by enabling service technicians in the field to access the FMS database through wireless technology.
Dispatching through CAD and FMS
Like the field employees, Washington Gas staff members in Operations Dispatch rely on CAD and FMS technology to access necessary facilities data without assistance from other departments, saving both time and money in the process.
Dispatch specialists use CAD’s sophisticated software on their individual work stations to schedule jobs, identify the skills and the technicians required, and to account for the approximate travel and work time. Each station has a radio, a CAD screen and an FMS screen. Dispatch specialists watch two 67-inch monitors, which use GPS technology to track the location of each of the service vehicles equipped with CAD units. The large monitors provide an added business benefit in that they are used in conjunction with the FMS to clearly display maps of critical areas when emergencies arise.
Vehicles are identified by type of truck and crew number, and the vehicle symbols change color to indicate whether the field employee is enroute, at the worksite, finished with the job or unable to gain access. Drivers’ positions are automatically updated every two minutes. Dispatch specialists can manually update the screen at any time. If for some reason the GPS data is unavailable for a vehicle, its location is plotted on the map using the address of the work order to which the vehicle was dispatched. Dispatch specialists can assign, unassign or transfer orders from resource to resource with the click of a button.
“Overall, CAD has improved our ability to quickly locate and assign emergency and non-emergency work to the closest available technician with the proper skills,” said Keith Johnson, dispatch section leader. “This helps us satisfy our commitment to safety and customer service.” Customers are able to get status reports on their orders from customer service representatives, resulting in greater convenience and time savings.
Now, dispatch specialists can conduct most of their daily business through CAD. The technicians can use the system to find out for themselves such information as whether the gas is on or off, where meters are located, and what work had been done at that location on previous visits. After a job is completed, the technician updates Washington Gas’ CIS directly from the field.
Washington Gas dispatch specialists use CAD software to schedule jobs, identify the technician required, and to account for travel and work time.
While allowing for spontaneous decisions, the CAD system helps dispatch specialists and field supervisors plan ahead, which improves efficiency. They are able to see work that is scheduled for dates up to 30 days in the future.
Another major advantage of CAD is that Operations Dispatch has been able to transition from a paper-driven department to an automated, paperless department. Yet the dispatch specialists have access to more information than ever before. For example, detailed work order history is stored for five years.
Washington Gas’ goal is to transform itself from a great utility to the best diversified energy retailer in the United States, according to Wilma Kumar-Rubock, Washington Gas’ vice president and CIO. The company fully intends to improve its powerful CAD system to help reach that goal.
“The first challenge is to identify those process improvements that will provide the greatest value for the business and to evaluate if technology is the solution that will allow those benefits to be achieved. If technology is the solution, the second challenge is to identify the specific technology that will lead to dramatic improvements while avoiding gee-whiz gizmos that cost a lot of money, prove difficult to use and simply do not perform as promised,” Kumar-Rubock said. “So far, we have met that challenge, and we are confident we will continue to do so.” n
Mahvash Keshmiri, Ph.D. is the Customer Information System Area Head with 18 years of experience at Washington Gas. She was the Technical Liaison on the CAD project.
John Wakefield is the Geographic Information System Section Leader with 22 years of experience at Washington Gas. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., WGL Holdings is the parent company of Washington Gas Light Company, a natural gas utility that serves approximately 900,000 customers throughout metropolitan Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region. In addition, it holds a group of energy-related retail businesses that focus primarily on energy marketing and commercial and residential heating, ventilating and air-conditioning services.