Utility call centers are the behind-the-scenes heroes when severe weather interrupts the flow of power.

By Steven M. Brown, Associate Editor

It was one of the most widespread, most damaging weather events to ever hit Oklahoma Gas & Electric’s (OG&E’s) transmission and distribution system-and that’s saying a lot. Oklahoma is no stranger to bad weather. When wind hits Oklahoma, it hits hard. Same goes for rain, heat and cold. Tornadoes strike with horrific, almost unimaginable force.

OG&E workers replace a pole in Ft. Smith, Ark., one of the areas hardest hit by the ice storm. A number of poles in the area snapped as a result of the crippling storm. Photo courtesy of Southwest Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.Click here to enlarge image

But it was ice that battered OG&E’s service territory in Oklahoma and western Arkansas on Christmas day 2000.

Will Rogers, one of Oklahoma’s favorite sons once said that “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, just wait a minute.” The fact of the matter, however, is that when bad weather strikes Oklahoma, it tends to hang on for a while. The sudden ice storm that hit Dec. 25 and lingered into Dec. 26 was followed by a heavy blanket of snow and continued freezing temperatures. Tree limbs snapped and fell to the ground under the weight of it all, bringing the utility’s distribution lines down with them. Approximately 140,000 customers lost power as a result of the late-2000 winter storm, and while most were restored quickly, some were without power for more than a week.

The width of the storm’s initial swath, and the continuing wintry weather that ensued, slowed the restoration efforts of the more than 700 linemen tasked with repairing OG&E’s damaged T&D assets. Conditions were so bad that it took until Jan. 4 before OG&E could announce that it was in the final stages of the restoration effort-11 days after the first pellets of ice touched the ground.

Undoubtedly, that seemed like a long time to customers, but Paul Renfrow, OG&E spokesperson, said he believed the utility handled the event as efficiently as it had ever handled a storm. While giving credit to every group involved in the restoration effort, Renfrow made sure to point out that a great deal of credit for the utility’s performance should be given to OG&E’s call center-and to the automation technologies at work there.

Wind Storm Precipitates Call Center Upgrade

As bad as the winter 2000 ice storm was for OG&E, it was not as brutal as a wind storm that hit the utility’s territory five years earlier. Anyone who has spent time in Oklahoma knows that wind-strong wind, at that-is almost a constant. But this wind was uncommon even for Oklahoma. Renfrow called the June 1995 wind storm OG&E’s “worst ever.” About 175,000 customers lost power then, and OG&E’s call center felt the brunt of their dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, in 1995 OG&E was not as well prepared as it is today to handle a large volume of calls. Customers who called to report outages after the wind storm were met with long delays. Many were put on hold, or worse, experienced busy signals.

CP&L field crews were quick to respond to a massive snowstorm that left more than 170,000 customers without power. Photo courtesy of Carolina Power & Light.Click here to enlarge image

Dorthy Rogers, OG&E’s telephone customer care manager, said the ’95 wind storm caused a great deal of disruption to the flow of power, but in a deceptive way.

“The winds came through and did tremendous damage, but then they were gone and we had sunny weather,” Rogers said. “Customers didn’t really understand the magnitude of the situation. We got tons of calls, and we couldn’t answer them all. Our customers were getting busy signals and couldn’t understand why. That was a tremendous complaint.”

Renfrow said that during OG&E’s internal review of its performance during the ’95 wind storm it became evident that OG&E’s call-handling was “a major failing of an otherwise very good restoration effort.”

As a result, OG&E implemented an automated high-volume call answering system capable of handling 1,800 calls simultaneously. The system, provided by Twenty First Century Communications, was up and running at OG&E by early 1997. The call handling system has access to a database of customer information that includes customer phone numbers, account numbers and addresses. When a customer interacts with the call answering system, the system is able to identify the customer and send a trouble ticket through the same customer care system (CCS) that a live OG&E call center worker uses. The system also gives customers confirmation that the trouble ticket has been processed.

The automated call answering system proved its worth to OG&E during the late 2000/early 2001 winter storm. In all, during the period from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, Rogers said that OG&E received 283,905 calls, most of which were related to customer outages. OG&E was able to answer more than 93 percent of those calls. The automated answering system handled approximately 136,000 of them. OG&E call center consultants answered about an additional 103,000, with about 27,000 more being handled by OG&E’s interactive voice response (IVR) system.

Rogers said that during a typical 11-day period during normal weather conditions, OG&E only receives about 70,000 calls. To demonstrate the magnitude of the call volume during this latest ice storm, Rogers said that on one day alone, Dec. 26, OG&E received more than 75,000 calls. OG&E could not have handled that many calls without the automation technologies that are in place today.

A tightly integrated, automated call center helped CP&L weather a massive snowstorm in late January 2000. Photo courtesy of Carolina Power & Light.Click here to enlarge image

“If you get more than 75,000 calls in one day, without an automated system, about 70,000 of those callers are likely to get busy signals,” Rogers said.

By Renfrow’s estimates, 75 percent of the customers who called in during the first two days of the massive ice storm would have been unable to get through if OG&E’s call center were operating the same way it did during the ’95 wind storm. Needless to say, customer complaints regarding their ability to reach the utility were significantly fewer after the Christmas 2000 ice storm than they were after the 1995 wind storm.

“From the customer’s point of view, we (the call center) are getting to be almost a non-entity,” Rogers said. “People aren’t focused in on us as much because the system is running smoothly. That’s because of the technology we’re using.”

Call Center Aids Restoration

During high-call-volume storm outage situations, automation technologies in OG&E’s call center serve an important purpose beyond assuring that customers can make contact with the utility. Paul Riess, a support coordinator for strategic services in OG&E’s power delivery group, said the call center also plays an important role in outage management and restoration efforts.

Riess said that the tight integration between systems in the call center and the dispatch center are key to getting customers back on-line when severe weather strikes.

With technology in place to handle the tremendous volume of calls during an outage, the next step is to put information gleaned from those calls to good use. Customer outage information, whether it’s collected by a live OG&E call center worker or by the automated call-handling solution, is recorded and collected in OG&E’s CCS (which is a single module in a larger solution from SAP Corp.). Besides the customer’s name, address, telephone number, and connectivity to the electrical system, additional information that might help the utility determine the cause of the outage is collected in the CCS.

From there, information from each customer’s call is passed along in a near-real-time transaction from the CCS to OG&E’s outage management system (OMS). In the event of a CCS failure, OG&E can bypass the CCS, allowing the OMS to collect information directly from OG&E’s automated call-handling system. OG&E employs a recently installed OMS from M3i.

Riess said that once the OMS receives information from the CCS, a number of algorithms and processes are applied to analyze the information and place calls in logical groups with the goal of determining the outage’s possible cause. Information from the OMS then is passed to the dispatcher, who relays information by radio-and with assistance from a computer-aided dispatch system-to OG&E’s mobile workforce.

Mobile workers, in turn, communicate back with the OMS via near-real-time batch data transactions, which include information on the device that failed, the type of failure and the failure’s cause. That information is collected by the OMS and stored as historical data. It is also funneled back through the CCS to OG&E’s live call center representatives, who then are better able to handle subsequent calls about the status of the outage. The OMS also generates call-back lists that call center representatives use to assure power has been fully restored to customer premises.

It’s a potentially complex process that is made much easier-and certainly much faster-by OG&E’s investment in a tightly integrated outage system that encompasses more than just the OMS itself. While outage restoration in the field is still, in large part, a manual effort, Riess is more than happy to call on the assistance of OG&E’s automated systems.

“If you go back a little more than a decade, we had to do this all by hand,” Riess said. “A system like this is really an enhancement to the process. We could not have done what we did in December and early January, in the amount of time we did it, without applications such as these.”

Riess said that although the volume of calls during the late-2000 ice storm was staggering, all the system’s components held up. Some adjustments had to be made to the OMS’s analysis functions, but the stream of information from the call center to the OMS to the dispatch center was never interrupted.

Award-winning Performance at CP&L

Like OG&E, Carolina Power & Light (CP&L) also must contend with weather events that conspire to interrupt the flow of power to customers. About a week after OG&E concluded restoration work from its ice storm, CP&L was receiving an award in recognition for its efforts during a similar storm that had occurred one year earlier.

CP&L received an EEI Emergency Response Award in early January 2001 to honor its reaction to a paralyzing snowstorm that hit the utility’s service area on Jan. 24, 2000. That winter storm affected 20 percent of CP&L’s service territory and left more than 173,000 customers without power. Nearly two feet of snow, sleet and freezing rain wreaked havoc on CP&L’s power delivery system and the work crews that were tasked with repairing it. But within 24 hours of activating its emergency preparedness plan, the utility had restored power to nearly half the affected customers. Rick Larsen, CP&L’s manager of strategic initiatives for customer service, attributes much of the utility’s success during the outage restoration process to investments in the customer service center.

“We feel like our customer service center sits in the middle and acts as the communications hub between our customers and our employees doing work out in the field,” Larsen said.

“Even though we’re hooked into tools at various locations on the electrical network and we can tell when power goes out at those locations, we still rely largely on customers to tell us where outages are,” he said. “As soon as a customer calls, our objective is to get that information into our outage analysis engine as quickly as possible.”

CP&L uses the same Twenty First Century Communications automated answering system that OG&E uses. Larsen estimates that about 250 lines come into CP&L’s internal call center, with about 95 additional lines going to the automated system. CP&L has set parameters so that the automated answering system only comes into play when CP&L’s internal queues are filled.

Although CP&L had been considering an automated call-handling system for years, the utility had implemented the Twenty First Century system less than two months prior to the late-January 2000 storm. Larsen said that despite the short amount of time the system had been in place, it turned out to be a lifesaver for the utility.

“It was the first time we used it,” Larsen said. “It was the first time we used it in a high-volume, crisis situation. And it worked.”

Larsen said that his group’s main objective in a severe storm situation is to take as many calls and provide as much real-time information as possible into the utility’s outage analysis system. More caller-supplied information means a more accurate outage analysis, and that results in a more efficient dispatch and restoration process. That is CP&L’s goal, and that goal was, for the most part, attained in the aftermath of the January 2000 storm.

Call Center Provides Stability

Through crisis, both OG&E and CP&L have learned the value of automated call centers that are tightly integrated with the rest of the power delivery enterprise. But while both utilities praise the systems they have in place, both agree that they can improve on the interaction with storm-struck customers. Larsen said that CP&L would like to strengthen an automated call-back function to check with customers once utility field workers believe they have restored power. OG&E’s Renfrow would like to see his utility work on better mutual communication between the call center and customers during outages.

“The system we have allows customers to communicate their problems, but it’s not a good two-way system,” Renfrow said. He said that OG&E would like to improve on its ability to let customers know estimated times of restoration based on their locations.

Due to weather’s violent vicissitudes, what is built in Oklahoma and in the Carolinas must be built strong. An interconnected system of poles and wires is inherently fragile. But the automation technologies OG&E and CP&L have built into their call centers and power delivery systems provide stable reinforcement against wind, rain, ice and whatever else the sky chooses to hurl at the utilities’ service territories.


  • The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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