By the Engineering and Operations Team, National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC)
Today’s outage management system (OMS) provides a convenient, one-stop system for organizations to effectively communicate pertinent information to customers. Traditionally organizations have experienced outage tracking systems where there are too many customer service representatives handling incoming calls, outgoing service dispatches as well as outage status updates. With so many people and tasks to remedy, an already stressful situation can become more confusing—ultimately increasing errors, creating more inefficiencies leading to poor customer service. Through improving communication, providing seamless technology integration and offering better system operations, a modern OMS is much more effective at meeting a utility’s requirements.
Since today’s OMS manages multiple streams of information, efficiency and customer service improves. For example, by integrating system monitoring technologies like automated meter infrastructure (AMI) and supervisory control and data and acquisition (SCADA), outages are detected immediately and crews are dispatched without receiving calls from the consumers. With automated vehicle location (AVL) tracking and mobile work order software crews are assigned outages without needing to come to the office. With new technologies being used more by the consumer, outage status updates are delivered through different communication avenues: e-mail, SMS text messaging, interactive voice response (IVR), customer information system (CIS) integration, geographical information system (GIS) integration, online outage maps and automated outage tickets—so both internal operations and consumers always have the most recent information. These capabilities create better organization, faster restorations and happier consumers.
Improving Communication: The Win-Win Scenario
From the crew to the customer, communication is critical to being efficient and providing good customer service. With a modern OMS, Sawnee EMC in Cumming, Ga., is able to streamline their communication process. “We now are able to tell all stakeholders (e.g. employees, members, media and others) the nature of an outage event, the number of consumers affected, as well as, an approximate restoration time,” said Greg Farr, vice president of engineering at Sawnee EMC. At Sawnee, improving communication also means taking advantage of other technologies on the market. “We utilize a number of methods, such as the storm center page on our website. This uses interactive tables and maps as well as several social networking tools,” said Farr. “We also use “Ëœhuman interaction’ through our call center as well as interact with our outage callers through our IVR.”
Improved communication decreases dispatchers’ response time during outages. For example, when a call enters the OMS, AMI analyzes the outage information then checks the surrounding meters. This integrated system eliminates the need for additional members to call in to help pinpoint the specific outage location. With this integration, OMS is less reliant upon individual customer phone calls to determine the extent of the outage.OMS integrated with AMI can help predict an over-protected connectivity model.
When an outage occurs during the day, fewer people are home, therefore less likely to call in to report the outage. With improved communication, the OMS can assist the operations department in pinpointing the outage more quickly, thus having power restored before members even noticed it was off. Periodic sweeping pings by AMI can also notify OMS of outages in the system where someone might not be there to call in (e.g. a member is on vacation). This allows the utility to catch unreported outages and restore power in a timely manner.
Another benefit of improved communication is that organizations are able to increase efficiencies when an OMS is integrated into an IVR. This integration helps reduce the number of employees answering phones at the utility by enabling the member to access outage information immediately and at their convenience through the IVR system. As a result, the organization’s customer service representatives (CSRs) can shift their focus to more timely issues.
Improving communication allows immediate access to pertinent information, this helps the staff at the utility address the needs of the member in the most efficient means as possible while presenting an opportunity to provide excellent customer service.
Technical Integration: Linking Efficiencies
Technical integration is the ability to share data between various software and systems. Utilities may have outage management, AMI, SCADA and other systems available at their office. Each system is capable of generating information that can be useful during outages. If these systems are linked to the OMS, you have the ability to manage outages, and the related data, from one location. The goal is to provide safe and efficient use of the utility workers’ time and company resources.
Technical integration links both internal and third party information together—to create a simplified process to better manage workflow. The key to this integration is having the ability to push or pull information to or from the OMS. Common technical integration includes CIS, AMI, SCADA, IVR, call centers, outage web maps, outage graphics, e-mail and text outage information.
When more external interfaces are added to the OMS, the system’s functionality increases. Having CIS integration allows CSRs to enter an outage and see if a person is a part of an existing outage (and display related outage information) without even talking to someone in operations. When AMI is integrated, OMS will ping meters to easily find the extent of an outage and receive unsolicited outage notifications.
For example, last month over the Easter holiday weekend, an ice storm took power out in North Dakota according to D.J. Randolph, a computer engineer with Vernedrye Electric Cooperative. Having a tight integration with OMS is critical to getting their members power back on in a timely manner. “Overall the OMS system in conjunction with TWACS is an incredible tool when managing these outages,” he said. “It saves us many miles and many phone calls in trying to understand what is really going on out there.”
Better integration allows call centers to enter the outages into the system and then translate the information so that the outage is logged directly into the OMS. Outage graphics provides dispatchers and office staff a visual reference for the outages in the system. Outage graphics integrated with GPS tracking displays a visual aid helping users determine where crews are and where they need to be so they can be easily dispatched. Outage web maps, texting options and e-mail capabilities gives the utility different methods of communicating outage information with many members at a time. These maps show general outage information in designated areas; such as zip codes or counties.
Through technical integration, budgets can be positively affected through reducing labor and employment costs while increasing OMS effectiveness.
System Operations: Improving the Day-to-Day Duties
In an engineering and operations department, daily system operations consists of; dispatching outages, making improvements to the mapping model, and doing load analysis, where there is always room for improvement. When integrated with an OMS, dispatched crews are able to get to their proper locations and restore outages in a timely manner.
Funding availability is often based on how well the utility responds to outages throughout the year. Streamlined system operations improves outage response times, this helps maintain the level of funding necessary. This is also important for maintaining good customer relations with members – the faster they can restore power to a member, the happier that member will remain.
Improvement in system operations occurs through more efficient use of utility resources to accomplish a task. With outages it’s reducing frequency and duration of interruptions and efficient use of line workers’ time.
Not only does this improve customer relations and crew safety, but it saves the utility money by reducing unnecessary or inaccurate service calls. If an outage can be verified with AMI, crews won’t be sent on-site to find out it was just a tripped breaker. With AMI and a good network model, you can also send crews directly to the source of a large outage, rather than have them go to the first call and work their way up through the system.
By improving communication, ensuring technology is properly integrated and system operations are as efficient as possible, utilities are able to experience a modern OMS tailored to meet today’s outage needs. Tom Musick, director of engineering and operations at Pioneer Electric, believes his integrated OMS is key to staying abreast of outages when they occur. “Without an OMS, it would take additional time to plot outages, confirm line outages and would require someone to manually ping AMI meters—whereas with an OMS the information is completed, automatically,” Musick said.
The NISC Engineering and Operations contributing subject matter experts and authors of this article include: Todd Eisenhauer, Dan Semar, Rob Lammle, Michael Bizzozero, Ethan Sincox and Douglas Huttegger.
The Engineering and Operations team at NISC are dedicated to helping today’s utility and telecommunications organizations collect, share and transform data into powerful, business-building information. They focus on finding ways to allow users to allocate resources more efficiently, improve response times, streamline operations and boost customer service efforts. The National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) is an information technology company that develops and supports software and hardware solutions for their member-owners, who are primarily utility cooperatives and telecommunications companies across the nation. More information at www.nisc.coop.