SRP Empowers Field Force with Mobile Computing

By Elliot Borin, contributing writer

Most power-and-water utility company executives would be delighted to trade their boxes of Pepcid and bottles of Tums for the kind of “problems” facing managers at Arizona-based Salt River Project (SRP).

Problems like winning the J.D. Power and Associates Distinction for Electric Utilities Award for 2004.

Problems like ranking first in the nation in the J.D. Power study of electricity provider business-customer satisfaction.

Problems like an overall customer satisfaction index of 112—also highest in the nation—in J.D. Power’s rating of electricity suppliers.

Problems like being the only electricity provider in America to make the Top 10 in every utility customer satisfaction survey J.D. Power has ever conducted.

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Consisting of two interdependent entities—the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, a political subdivision of the state of Arizona, and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association, a private corporation—SRP serves more than 800,000 electricity and water consumers in the Phoenix, Ariz., metropolitan area.

SRP management takes the utility’s official mission statement—”to deliver ever-improving contributions to the people we serve through the provision of low-cost, reliable water and power”—seriously. Very seriously.

Which is why living up to its reputation for low prices, customer-centric service and near-bulletproof reliability is a major challenge at SRP—a challenge that is being increasingly met through the use of automated systems interfacing the company’s extensive centralized databases with Panasonic Toughbook mobile computers deployed among the company’s various field-force divisions.

“Six years or so ago our Blue Stake Group, which is primarily responsible for locating and marking the underground utility routes on our (29,000-square-mile) system, was locating system facilities using maps on microfilm cards” said Roger Baker, SRP principal engineer.

“It was a substantial effort to keep all the cards updated for every locator. Now our document management system provides nightly extracts of electronic images, which each Blue Stake locator can access and download to their laptops at the beginning of each shift.

“Retiring our stacks of microfilm maps produced significant savings,” he said. “Once the laptop solution was implemented, the productivity of both our field workers and back-office workers improved.”

The Blue Stake Group is not the only SRP division to attain operational and bottom-line benefits from the deployment of mobile computers.

In 2002, the company completed a “line maintenance mobile PC project” in which each of its preventative maintenance crews and line maintenance supervisors were equipped with Toughbooks giving them wireless access to the SRP network and associated applications and resources.

Though the number of units involved, 13, is small, the savings in both dollars and personnel hours have been impressive.

According to an internal project study, projected benefits from the deployment include increased work-crew efficiency, better communications and scheduling, an increase in customer service, a decrease in the amount of time customers are out of service, safety improvements related to having the most current electric maps available for each job, safety improvements related to a decrease in miles driven to obtain maps and support at field offices, and decreased radio and cell phone traffic.

The mobile computers deployed at SRP are well-suited for field-force crews that spend all or most of their shift working outdoors—often under extremely adverse conditions. The devices must be able to withstand temperature extremes, drops, shocks, liquids, and the accumulated stress of being dragged out of and tossed into a vehicle 12 or 15 times a day.

Other benefits of the units directly related to utility field work include noon-to-midnight readable LCD displays, touchscreens that can be effectively manipulated by users wearing heavy gloves, keyboards and pointing devices that resist getting clogged by dirt and grime, and multiple integrated wireless communication and GPS options.

SRP’s Baker notes that some of those qualities make ruggedized notebooks ideal emergency crew tools.

“We have fall-down storm damage at least several times a year,” Baker said. “We usually can get emergency crews dispatched to those locations very quickly. Prior to deploying the notebooks, however, the emergency crews would often have to send someone to an office to pick up a work-order package and a print of the latest maps.

“Using the Toughbooks’ wireless communications capability to link with our system increases the emergency crew’s efficiency and results in measurable savings.”

Another way in which SRP has leveraged the wireless potential of its notebooks for maximum benefit is through the use of a comprehensive internal website.

“We are putting an increased amount of information on those web pages,” Baker said. “Forms, job aids, gate codes for gated communities, substation information, all kinds of things. Dispersing that information as web pages accessible through wireless-enabled laptops is becoming increasingly important.

Baker notes that SRP’s migration of its various field forces to fully automated, computerized status is a constantly evolving process, with various applications and infrastructure enhancements being made to accommodate the increase in mobile computing.

The use of mobile computing devices has improved the efficiency of SRP field workers as they perform such tasks as staking and line maintenance.
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“A major goal is more ‘real-timeliness’,” Baker says. “We want workers in the field to be able to report real-time information to the office so the office can give up-to-date information to customers.”

Like every other utility company, SRP faced the usual human-engineering challenges inherent in introducing new technology. Many field workers spend the bulk of their time climbing poles, kneeling by junction boxes, and tracing conductors. Over the years they have learned to pull a dedicated test module off their belt or out of a pouch without even looking for it. They may also have become conditioned to view and analyze data in terms of analog dials rather than numeric digital readouts.

While a sizable number of individuals in the field force have become highly computer-literate through previous work experience or on their own, many have had no PC experience beyond, perhaps, sending e-mail from their children’s computers.

“Some of the major challenges were in the area of training and usability, but we’ve been able to overcome those challengers” Baker says. “Today users in the field are continually coming up with new and creative ways to use the laptop.”

The former editor-in-chief of Portable Computing magazine, Elliot Borin is a frequent contributor to Wired News, Outside Plant, National Underwriter, Field Force Automation and numerous other technology publications.

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