Putting GIS to Work across Departmental Lines at Florence Utilities

By Chester Richey

Water, water everywhere… and not a clue where the lines really are. For many water/wastewater utilities, the absence of accurate mapping data has made locating and managing existing underground utility lines pure guesswork.

But that won’t be a problem any longer for a progressive utility in northwest Alabama. Florence Utilities (Florence, Ala.) recently completed the implementation of a comprehensive ESRI-based AM/FM/GIS with the help of UAI (Utility Automation Integrators) in Huntsville, Ala.

With its updated geospatial technologies in place, Florence Utilities’ work crews can address service interruptions much more rapidly.
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The new system contains data on facilities serving more than 95,000 total meters: 43,000 electric, 23,000 water, 15,000 wastewater and 16,000 gas. The Florence Utilities system is believed to be one of the first in the country encompassing all utility departments in a common, system-wide GIS.

With his customers demanding better service and faster response to interruptions, General Manager Jack Hilliard said the utilities department asked the Florence City Council to invest in geospatial technology that would improve the flow of information across departmental lines and improve overall operational efficiency.

While that was a great plan, it took no small amount of effort to bring it to fruition. Hilliard said the company had to start from scratch and build a GIS from the ground up–or down as the case might be.

“This entire process began in 1998 with a GPS field inventory of our system,” he said. “Every piece of utility plant from power poles to water mains to gas lines was accurately placed in our GIS.” Students from the geography department of the University of North Alabama in Florence helped collect field data.

The resulting electronic map displays customer information along with vital facility information, such as the size and location of water mains and service lines as well as pumping stations, sewer lines and other facilities. The utility’s complete electric and gas networks are also modeled electronically from substation to meter.

Florence Utilities’ AM/FM/GIS includes data on electric, gas and water/wastewater facilities.
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“With the click of a mouse, our personnel can instantly see who we are serving and how we are serving them,” Hilliard said.

With its new geospatial solution in place, Florence Utilities now can manage daily operations more efficiently, respond faster to customer inquiries and address service interruptions or problems much more rapidly.

“It truly addresses every facet of daily workflows,” Hilliard said. “Our front-line employees have finger-tip access to the information they need to make informed decisions and answer questions. Managers can more efficiently assign resources to work orders and regular maintenance schedules, and city council members can log on and access information any time of the day or night.”

System engineer Ben Crane said the utility’s AS400 customer information system is now seamlessly integrated so customer service reps, dispatchers and other employees can work within the GIS while accessing both mapping and billing data simultaneously. Integration of Florence Utilities’ interactive voice response (IVR) system added even more functionality to the GIS.

“Not only does the IVR automatically route incoming customer trouble calls and display them on the map for the dispatcher,” Crane said, “but it could also automatically generate outbound messages to selected customers.”

For example, the water department can identify any number of customers along a particular line and automatically generate calls to inform them of planned work, water quality issues or any other information that needs to be disseminated.

Web-enhancing modules expand the scope of information access past traditional “licensed” workstations by giving employees the ability to log on to the system via a standard Web browser and access applications from any PC or laptop with secure network access.

“I can literally be across the country at a conference and log on to this system to view current outages, work order schedules, crew assignments or other information,” Hilliard said. “Pre-defined and ad hoc reports can be generated regularly or upon a moment’s notice. I have never had the kind of day-to-day managerial tools that this system provides.”

And when it comes time to sit down and analyze system performance or plan for future growth, engineering technician Larry Grace said the analytical tools brought to the table are invaluable.

“We’re simply not guessing any longer,” Grace said. “We now know in the office and in the field exactly how our customers are connected. This allows us, along with our field personnel, to make better and more informed decisions on how to best serve our customers.”

Because Florence Utilities serves the entire Lauderdale County area, the ability to visualize the entire service area on a seamless, system-wide map was a key factor in the decision to use UAI’s technology built on the ESRI ArcGIS platform.

“ESRI’s base ArcGIS technology gave us a firm foundation on which to build our complete system,” Hilliard said. “It was important that we be able to visualize the entire county, but also see clearly where city boundaries lie.”

As a municipal utility department serving rural areas of the county, Hilliard said Florence also deals with multiple regulatory agencies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Utilities Service. With the entire utility digitized, questions about regulatory compliance are no longer a nightmare.

“I don’t think there is an end to where this technology can take us,” said Hilliard. “The potential that integrating GIS with global positioning systems, automatic vehicle location and automatic meter reading holds is staggering.”

Hilliard said one day very soon he fully expects to sit in his office and watch in real-time as utility crews move across the system installing or repairing water facilities, power lines, gas mains and other equipment. Wireless communication with crews will be as easy as sending an e-mail. Dispatchers will be notified of trouble and have crews dispatched before the customer can even pick up the phone.

“We’re tickled to death with what GIS is doing for us today and excited about what the future is going to bring,” Hilliard said.

Chester Richey is GIS administrator for City of Florence (AL) Utilities.

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