Trouble Call Management: The First Step in Outage Response

By Andrew Thompson

When the power goes off and customers, management and the media are demanding answers, will you be able to provide appropriate, accurate information when they want it?

Trouble call management (TCM) is the process of both managing the inbound avalanche of calls that follow a power outage, and managing the outbound provision of that same information to field crews, customers, stakeholders and others who require it.

Chelan County PUD in north-central Washington state is one utility that understands the importance of immediate communication to customers and staff during outages. The PUD serves more than 30,000 electric customers within the county borders. When bad weather or other problems cause an outage, Chelan County PUD’s customers can overwhelm phone lines with calls.

“Our phone system wasn’t equipped to handle major outages,” said Ken Johnson, senior system operations engineer and outage management team leader at Chelan County PUD. “During a significant outage, our customers might phone in and get a busy signal.”

The utility’s commitment to customer and staff satisfaction led them to review their trouble call handling as the first step to improving their outage management processes.

The Issues

The issues Chelan discovered are typical of most utilities operating in an increasingly demanding environment. These included:

  • Outages are unexpected and unplanned, generally having the most impact after normal office hours when customers are at home, and there is limited staff available to handle the large volume of customer calls.
  • Most customers all want answers to the same questions: Does the utility know the power is out? What caused the outage? And when will power be restored?
  • Phone lines become swamped, resulting in many customers receiving busy signals.
  • System and time constraints limit the call center’s ability to provide outage information to other areas of the business.
  • Outage messages produced by staff in these high-pressure situations may not be as professional or informative as they should be.
  • The time it takes to handle hundreds of calls from concerned customers, some with key outage information, means staff cannot relay information adequately enough or quickly enough to aid restoration and efficient information flow.
  • Communication departments need to be notified of any incident to enable them to handle all external communication issues.
  • Without key outage information from customers, utilities are often “left in the dark” as to what the specific cause of the problem is.

The collection of both quantitative and qualitative information from trouble calls is a key component in the outage analysis and restoration process:

  • A certain quantity of calls will provide a “footprint” of the outage and allow the identification of the likely isolation device.
  • Providing an ingress route that allows key callers to get through and deliver high-quality information (e.g., a car ran into the pole in front of my house atU) will validate the quantitative analysis.
  • This outage information is analyzed and the appropriate work orders created for allocation to available field crews, who conduct on-the-ground analysis for physical restoration.
  • Information also needs to be passed to control room staff so they can review and create contingency switching plans to isolate the affected area and restore as many customers as possible through movement to other feeders.
  • Status information must be returned from the field to dispatchers and then updated for customers who call in for information.

After Chelan County PUD assessed their information channels during an outage, they determined five key groups that needed to be within an immediate communication loop: customers, key and sensitive accounts, dispatch and control center personnel, communications staff, and field crews.

Trouble Call Options

Once these issues were highlighted, Chelan County PUD began researching possible solutions to improve their response and capabilities. The options boiled down to four methodologies and/or technologies: outsourced call centers, outsourced IVR (interactive voice response), internal IVR, and a combination solution.

Outsourced Call Centers. Outsourced call centers have the ability to handle high call volumes and transfer overflow to other staff. However, most call centers are not designed specifically for utility fault call handling, and they may not be based near enough to the utility to be familiar with the local area and place names. Another downside is that utility dispatch staff would need to continually notify the outsourced call center of any changes throughout the duration of the outage so operators would be able to update customers in a consistent and reliable manner. Overall, outsourced call centers can fall short, when most callers just wanted to know “What has happened” and “When will my power be restored.”

Access to and training on existing systems such as customer information systems (CIS) or outage management systems (OMS) was also going to be problematic and would have resulted in dispatchers having to manually update all outage notification.

Outsourced IVR Systems. Outsourced IVR systems have the ability to handle large call volumes with a 24 hour, 7 day a week presence. Although outsourced IVR companies have thousands of ports available to handle large call volumes, they also service a large number of clients, which means busy signals can still occur during excessively high traffic times. In addition, the calls would have to be hauled to the IVR and then back again to the call answering location for those callers who wanted to talk with an operator, which is a costly process. Direct integration with other systems, e.g. SCADA and OMS, was also going to prove difficult for Chelan County PUD, although new standards, such as MultiSpeak, have the potential to make that easier in the future.

Another downside to outsourced IVR is that since it is both outsourced and a shared platform, the user interface to allow utility staff to update information was not specific enough to the utility’s circuits. Dispatchers would still be responsible for updating/recording the messages over the phone. The message content therefore might vary depending on the dispatchers consistency at a time when they are already overloaded trying to fix outages.

Further, to generate trouble tickets, the utility would have to provide a snapshot of their entire CIS to the outsourced center to allow matching between phone number and address, which raises issues of security and requires significant effort to keep the outsourced IVR current with the CIS.

Internal IVR Systems. Internal IVR systems are generally easier to integrate with existing systems such as SCADA, CIS, OMS, and have historically been the only solution available. But these systems were designed for flat or known call volumes and generally cannot handle the peaking volumes associated with outages.

There are two options to combat this: Provision the system with a significant number of lines (which would sit unused a majority of the time) based upon what could be the greatest peak of callers at any one time, or accept that a number of callers will receive busy signals during outage situations. The first option has significant operating and capital expenditures attached to it, and the latter really defeats the purpose of the solution.

Again, even with in-house IVR, dispatchers are responsible for updating and recording messages at peak times, which reduces message professionalism and consistency.

The Chelan County Solution

Chelan elected to implement a combination solution provided by TVD Inc. The Avalanche TCM solution comprised:

  • A Windows-based user interface showing a combination of maps, zone substations and feeders linked to localities, which both utility staff and callers would understand.
  • A pre-recorded message library to allow staff to quickly build an outage message, which ensures a consistently high quality of information and professional image are presented to callers during outages.
  • Messages are uploaded to the local telephone company central office ensuring no busy signals and an almost unlimited call-handling capability at a low cost.
  • Callers can listen to the message, and if they still want to talk to an operator they are directed to the call center. All calls are local.
  • Automated outbound notifications via e-mail, fax, voice call out, SMS and pager are available.
  • An up-to-the-minute Internet site containing outage information can be accessed by web browser, PDA or WAP phone.
  • Integration with SCADA for automated message construction when a feeder circuit breaker is tripped.

The Outcome and Future

Customers who now call during an outage automatically receive a professionally pre-recorded notification message to inform that the utility is aware of the outage, what the cause is and the likely timeframe for restoration—all specific to the caller’s locality. Should the caller have important information such as the actual cause and location of the outage they are routed to an operator at the dispatch center.

It now takes about 30 seconds for dispatchers to construct a professional outage message for callers, which details the areas affected, estimated time of restoration and cause (if known). The professional, high-quality information has significantly reduced the number of calls dispatchers have to deal with, and allowed them a lot more time to actually work on restoring supply.

Whereas previously there was simply not enough time or resources to contact large groups of customers during a loss of supply, now Chelan has the ability to increase the number of people they can contact, such as key accounts, local media and district superintendents.

Also as messages are now uploaded automatically, communications staff are not being called into the office at 2 a.m. to record outage messages.

In the future, Chelan intends to link this system to their new SCADA /OMS system and may start using the CallOut features with other systems such as Crew CallOut and payment prompting via their CIS.

Chelan County PUD’s Ken Johnson summed up the end result: “All stakeholders have benefited from this system. It has been an excellent representation of our commitment to our staff and customers of improving this critical area, in a very cost effective way. We have already identified some enhancements which need to be made, and it’s given us a good platform from which to expand our outbound communications effort for other areas of the organization.”

Andrew Thompson is CEO and founder of TVD Inc. With more than 10 years experience in the energy industry, Andrew is heavily involved in all aspects of TVD Inc.’s product conception, development, sales and support.

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