Utility Companies Reveal Storm Restoration Practices

Editor’s note: The following article was edited from a report distributed by software design and development company Macrosoft. This report is the outcome of an online survey conducted in 2007. The results are based on responses from more than 110 storm center personnel across 50 utilities. The report highlights the importance of standardizing operations and leveraging technology to enhance efficiencies while quickly assembling people and equipment. For more information on the report or Macrosoft, please contact Jason Singer at jsinger@macrosoftinc.com.

Every year with increasingly severe weather conditions, utility companies in North America are facing greater challenges in handling emergency situations and restoring service within the shortest time. Their efficiency is dependent on a number of factors– mainly their preparedness and the optimal utilization of available resources like man power, equipment and materials.

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NOAA National Weather Service data indicates that from January through May 2007, the U.S. was hit by 21 killer tornadoes–up from 24 for the whole year of 2006 and 12 in 2005. If reports and predictions are accurate, we will be facing more dire weather conditions which are sure to disrupt our lives. Providing an uninterrupted flow of electricity, utility companies are a critical component of modern life. Their importance is not noticed until the power is off. In a society of demanding consumers, 24-hour media, and ever-present regulators, restoration for all outages must be completed in the shortest and most efficient manner.

Participant Stats

The survey upon which this report is based was completed by 110 storm center personnel representing 50 separate utilities with various ownership patterns. Nearly 59 percent were investor-owned, while 15 percent were owned by the government. This year’s survey includes a greater diversity with participation by cooperative, municipal and other utilities making up the remaining 26 percent.

Examining regional distribution, the Southeast region had the greatest number of respondents at 27 percent while respondents from the Midwest formed 21 percent of the overall total. Utilities from the Southwest and Northeast each accounted for 12 percent of the survey size and 9 percent were from Canada. Utilities from the Mid-Atlantic (6 percent), Northwest (5 percent) and other regions (5 percent) are also included in the survey.

Virtually all of the respondents are in the business of generation, distribution or transmission of electricity. Other core businesses include natural gas, communications, water and steam. In terms of the number of customers served, 38 percent have less than 500,000 customers, 28 percent have between 500,000 and 1.5 million, with 34 percent having greater than 1.5 million.

Storm Centers vs. Large Outages

Note: For the purposes of this survey, a “large scale emergency outage” was defined as an outage that affects greater than 5 percent of the total customers of a utility for a period exceeding 24 hours.

This year’s survey specifically questioned the respondents on the number of times they set up storm centers in a year. It was discovered that storm centers are opened more often than participants reported having large-scale outages. The frequency with which storm centers are opened each year compels standardization and automation of several critical processes involved in the restoration effort.

Some of the key triggers leading to setting up of storm centers include expectations that:

  • Multiple territories/regions could be affected.
  • There will be a need for off-system resources.
  • Crews and materials will be transferred across regions.
  • Outages will last more than 24 hours.

Annual Outage Numbers and Causes

Seventy-five percent of the utilities surveyed indicated that they faced large-scale emergency events at least once every year, while 50 percent of the total companies surveyed said they weathered such situations three to five times a year. Twenty percent had a higher number of incidents ranging between three and 10 times, while 6 percent said they had more than 10 such occurrences.

Almost 63 percent of the companies reported large-scale events lasting up to three days and 36 percent have had emergencies lasting between three and 10 days with a few reporting longer outages. Most emergencies were caused as a result of weather-related events. Weather-related event causes varied by geographic territory, but looking across the entire sample, we found the following information (see Figure 1):

  • 37 percent were caused due to heavy winds, thunderstorm and lightning.
  • 16 percent were due to ice, and
  • 12 percent were due to hurricanes.
  • Manmade issues and equipment failure accounted for less than 7 percent.
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When presented with an open-ended question asking “key challenges” faced during a large-scale restoration event, the observations were extensive, including comments such as, “everything in the storm center is a key challenge.” After grouping these responses, four stood out as key challenges:

  • Accurate assessment of the damage;
  • Acquiring resources required for the restoration effort in a timely manner;
  • Tracking crew locations and managing them effectively, while providing them with lodging and boarding facilities; and,
  • Ensuring that invoices after a storm event are accurate and are in accordance with prior approvals.

Managing the Workforce

During a “blue-sky” day, the number of field personnel working with most of the companies range from 50 to more than 500 people. While 49 percent of the companies surveyed manage 50 to 250 people, 12 percent have about 250 to 500 personnel, and 32 percent have more than 500 people working with them. However, these numbers could grow into several hundreds to thousands depending on the scale of damage caused.

During a typical large-scale emergency outage, 30 percent of the companies reported to have deployed 100 to 250 people, while 11 percent worked with 250 to 500 people, and 23 percent had up to 1,000 people working. Sixteen percent deployed 1,000 to 2,500 personnel, and 11 percent deployed 2,500 or more (see Figure 2).

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Nearly half the companies manage their personnel by dividing them into separate teams comprising one to five people in each crew. These resource teams can increase to as high as 100 people in each depending on the severity of the outage. Fifty-eight percent of the companies reported to have deployed up to 75 different teams, while 21 percent deployed 75 to 250 teams. There are also utilities which have managed 250 to 500 (10 percent) and more than 500 (11 percent) teams during a single event.

Similar to last year, more than 90 percent of utilities deploy contract line teams, tree teams and mutual assistance teams during emergencies. Nearly 48 percent said they always deploy contract line teams, 64 percent always employ contract tree teams and 21 percent said they always employ mutual assistance teams. This year we found that 25 percent of the companies send mutual assistance help to neighboring utilities at least three times in a year. Almost all respondents belong to at least one mutual assistance group with many belonging to as many as four.

Logistics and Reporting

It is a common practice for utilities to set up staging areas during emergency situations. Most plans make use of predefined locations, ranging from company service centers and dispatch yards to fairgrounds and mall parking lots, based on the severity of the damage.

This year’s survey revealed that 41 percent of the companies set up staging areas during emergencies. Sixty-eight percent said that they set up at least one to five staging areas per event. Some companies establish up to 10 staging areas. When operations are widespread and involve large numbers of people and equipment, it becomes imperative to track and monitor them closely for efficient management. Eighty-five percent of the companies track teams to their specific work location or to the local service center where they work. More than half of the respondents surveyed indicated that they typically manage or support teams spread across at least 10 distinct locations.

Through open-ended questions regarding reporting, it was evident that being able to accurately report on the restoration effort was critical to efficient storm center operations. The most common types of real-time reports that utilities seek during an emergency restoration effort include:

  • Damage assessment reports;
  • Crew rosters identifying utility, name of the worker and their contact information;
  • Exact locations of the personnel, hours worked, materials and equipments being used;
  • Information on their lodging facilities; and
  • Consolidated crew reports, staging area crew reports and staging area summary reports.

Solutions and Tools

With a large number of people working at different locations, it is critical for companies to have real-time and accurate information for effective management.

Forty of the 110 respondents (36 percent) surveyed said they follow only a manual process for tracking and managing their resources during an event while 24 (22 percent) said they utilize a fully automated system. 46 people (42 percent) said they have a combined approach in generating reports and controlling operations.

It is interesting to note that less than 10 percent of the companies follow an automated system for managing aspects relating to logistics and lodging. Data from our previous survey indicates that utilities located in geographic regions where events occur with greater frequencies are more likely to use an automated approach to emergency resource management. Almost a third of them still rely on manual processes in tracking such critical functions.

About 40 percent of the overall survey size felt that a manual approach does not provide adequate reporting. It is labor-intensive, many times inconsistent, does not provide real-time and comprehensive information, it does not allow easy sharing of information amongst large groups of people/teams as it has restricted access (usually to a single-user), and lacks post-event reporting capability.

However, some of the reasons why companies have stuck to the traditional methods are the ease with which they have been handling such activities over the years, their cost-effectiveness, the flexibility they provide and simplicity. But the passing time has brought with it greater challenges and complex situations that require newer ways of handling emergencies. Fifty-two percent of the respondents agreed that automating their storm center operations is a corporate priority.

To sum up the key findings of this year’s survey and draw a comparative analysis from last year, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Storm centers are consistently opened multiple times per year.
  • As in the last year, weather is consistently the key culprit impacting multiple regions/service territories.
  • Utilities engage a large number of outside resources promoting mutual assistance between regions.
  • More than 90 percent of the companies deploy contract teams during emergency restoration.
  • Almost all the utilities surveyed have affiliations with at least one mutual assistance group with many belonging to as many as four.
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