By Dallas Hopkins, South Kentucky RECC
With portions of 13 counties to cover in south central Kentucky, the management of crews and outage restoration efforts has traditionally been a cumbersome chore for managers and dispatchers at South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (RECC). But thanks to implementation of a cutting-edge automatic vehicle location (AVL) system and geographic information system (GIS), all that has changed for the better.
Paper maps, handwritten trouble tickets and a lot of guesswork used to be the norm for the 60,000-member RECC headquartered in Somerset, Ky.
“Historically, South Kentucky relied on some very outdated information,” said Allen Anderson, CEO of South Kentucky RECC. “The background was based on old postal maps, and new construction was hand drawn with estimated distances. No poles were shown—just primary lines.” Paper maps were updated only every five years.
When trouble hit, crews were dispatched into the throes of the outage with little reliable information to guide them. Dispatchers and managers used manual means to record trouble locations, assign crews and keep up with the current locations of all assigned resources.
Six years ago, the co-op’s board made the decision to invest in technology that would improve the availability and flow of accurate system information. In 2001, a field GPS inventory was conducted, and an initial AutoCAD system from Gentry was installed. However, co-op officials soon realized limitations on its ability to assist in managing outages. When Gentry was acquired, South Kentucky RECC began looking for a more comprehensive ESRI-based solution.
“We wanted a true outage management system that was fully integrated with GIS,” said Rick Stephens, South Kentucky RECC board president. “The board felt that this would give our employees the tools they needed to locate outages, manage our crews and get our members back in service faster.”
South Kentucky also wanted a GPS-based AVL system that would improve the ability of dispatchers to locate available mobile resources throughout the system.
After an exhaustive review of available systems, South Kentucky opted for the UtilityCenter solution from UAI Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., for its GIS, work management and outage management system (OMS). The co-op also selected an AVL system from San Diego, Calif.-based Cloudberry.
Because the two systems are seamlessly integrated, dispatchers like David Trimble and Bruce Murphy can see the location of all available crews displayed on their desktop within the UtilityCenter application. When trouble strikes, dispatchers can access one system to view trouble calls, the affected outage area, the predicted failed device and the location of all available crews throughout the system.
“This has taken the guesswork out of outage response,” Trimble said. “The prediction engine lets us know where to send crews, and the AVL shows us who can get there the fastest.”
The new system helps the co-op pinpoint the section of line where an outage has occurred and reduce time riding lines to find the cause. Now, nearby crews can be at the location within minutes, head directly to the predicted device and begin repairs immediately. Because UtilityCenter groups the incoming calls into easily identifiable outage areas, crews can get the greatest number of consumers back on first, then concentrate on the more isolated calls.
Trimble said the system also provides an additional measure of safety for crews in the field. “We recently dispatched a serviceman to an isolated outage,” he said. “We could see his vehicle here in dispatch as it made its way to the location.”
When the serviceman missed the correct road, Trimble immediately radioed and instructed the driver to turn around. By helping the serviceman find the location, the affected customer was back in service much faster.
The Cloudberry AVL system reports location updates every 1.5 minutes. Vehicle location updates are transmitted via satellite to ensure total coverage of the South Kentucky RECC service area. Cloudberry also offers a system called DualTrak that utilizes cellular transmission where possible, reverting to satellite where cellular coverage is unavailable.
South Kentucky initially contracted for 15 trucks to be outfitted with the AVL hardware. Currently five additional units are being added, and future enhancements to the system are planned.
Part of South Kentucky’s new system involves automatic vehicle location technology from Cloudberry.
Anderson said the co-op is looking at issuing keychain Personal Alert Safety Systems to each serviceman. By simply pressing the alert button on the keychain, the employee can notify dispatchers of an emergency situation even if they are away from the vehicle.
South Kentucky is also exploring the possibility of wirelessly transmitting work order and trouble call information directly to crews in the field and installation of GPS units on the trucks that will allow drivers to see their current location displayed on laptops in the vehicle.
Since implementing the UAI and Cloudberry systems last year, South Kentucky RECC has experienced several large outages. Murphy said the system has performed extremely well in those instances, and reduced tension in the co-op’s dispatch center.
“In the past we would have every available person in here trying to answer the phone, talk to customers, yelling back and forth to see if anyone else had calls from the same area,” he said. “It would get so loud in here that crews in the field couldn’t understand us on the radio because of the background noise.”
Because the UtilityCenter system is Web-based, trouble calls now can be input directly into the OMS from any workstation with secure network access. While customer service representatives are taking calls from other customers, they can see which outages have already been reported and where crews are assigned.
South Kentucky RECC dispatchers like Bruce Murphy can now see the location of all available crews displayed on their desktops.
The co-op also employs the use of the Cooperative Response Center in Austin, Minn., for mass outage situations. The Cooperative Response Center is a cooperatively owned and operated 24-hour customer contact center and central station serving the nation from a northern U.S. Center in Austin, Minn., and a southern U.S. Center in Dunlap, Tenn. Anderson said using the CRC call center helps South Kentucky RECC give members a “live” person to talk to, regardless of the number of people out of power.
“CRC takes the call and inputs it into our OMS via a web interface,” Anderson said. “It’s really the best of both worlds: a live dispatcher with the overall functionality of an automated phone answering system. It has been a win-win situation.”
Whether it’s the pinpoint accuracy of the co-op’s UtilityCenter GIS, the integration of its LINK automatic meter reading or the Cloudberry AVL system, Stephens said the South Kentucky RECC board takes technology seriously and encourages other utilities to view it as an investment that will pay huge dividends for customers.
“Utilities must have a vision for what this type of technology can do for them,” he said. “Our customers are demanding better and better service. GIS, AVL, SCADA and other technology is vital to making certain that we meet those demands.”
Dallas Hopkins is the technical services team leader for South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corp.