When Lightning Strikes, SRP Calls out Mobile App

By Mark Bell, SRP

Salt River Project (SRP), the third-largest U.S. public power utility, is on its way to installing 1 million smart meters by 2013. Installing high-tech meters, however, isn’t the only smart technology SRP is using. During the first quarter of 2011, a select number of supervisors in the SRP field maintenance group began launching after-hours callouts from a smart phone mobile application. Now, when a storm races through SRP’s central Arizona electric service territory and knocks out a transformer or brings down wires, supervisors initiate a callout for maintenance crews with the mobile app.

Power to the Mobile App

Last fall SRP began testing the app, which runs as a desktop icon on each supervisor’s BlackBerry. According to SRP, it’s the first U.S. utility that has adopted a mobile app for emergency notification and callout. The callout app gets its data from an automated callout system SRP put in place last year. That software, the ARCOS System, is a hosted, Internet-based application for identifying available crews, calling them, analyzing responses and reporting on the outcome.

In February 2010, SRP put the system in place to provide executives, dispatchers and supervisors with up-to-the-minute intelligence on which of its crews are able to respond to callouts. For instance, if SRP receives word that a callout is needed, a supervisor taps into the ARCOS System via a desktop or laptop computer, and the software fires off voice and text messages to hundreds of crew members in seconds. As the software prepares to send the message to crew members, it takes into account a complex set of predetermined work force rules and regulations. When crew members receive the request for help, they respond whether they can work the callout.

Laying the Groundwork for Mobile Callout

SRP turned to an automated callout system last year to put in place a faster, more efficient process for assembling crews for after-hours emergencies. SRP calculates that its automated callout system can trim one hour or more off the time it takes to assemble a crew, which means crews get to the site of trouble faster and restore power sooner. Eliminating manual callout enabled SRP dispatchers to respond to other mission-critical tasks. Taking away the burden of manual callout also helped maintenance supervisors, who now can focus on assessing the severity of multiple repair situations instead of keeping tabs on callout lists.

With the introduction of the mobile callout app, also known as ARCOS Mobile, SRP has extended the benefits of its automated callout software to supervisors who previously had to carry laptops wherever they traveled after normal working hours. Here’s an example of how things would work with the automated callout system before SRP adopted the mobile app: An SRP supervisor on duty after hours might be eating with friends at a restaurant. The supervisor would receive an emergency restoration call. He or she would have to leave the table, turn on a laptop computer that was always kept nearby and initiate a callout for a crew.

That process is an enormous improvement over the manual callout method it replaced. Dispatchers and working foreman previously flipped through spreadsheets and dialed away to connect with crew members who would accept a call. But with the mobile app on the supervisor’s BlackBerry, the person no longer needs to stay near a laptop.

SRP’s Mobile Focus

It’s not unusual that SRP would be among the first, if not the first, to implement a mobile callout app. SRP tries to implement mobile solutions wherever it can because the company knows on-the-go technologies improve the efficiency of the utility’s existing methods. Mobile tools increase the speed with which things get accomplished. And wireless devices and technology also sync up well with SRP’s efforts to conserve resources such as energy and paper.

SRP’s history of conservation stretches back to 1903 when it tackled the first multipurpose reclamation project in the U.S. Conserving resources of all kinds is still paramount to SRP. For instance, the company installed laptops in its vehicles in 2005 so crew members could receive repair details and update supervisors and dispatchers on work status without creating paperwork and extra effort.

When SRP learned about a mobile app for its callout software that would enable supervisors to stay abreast of employees’ progress–even when managers aren’t in front computers, the utility become part of the beta test conducted in fall 2010.

An Evolution From Monitoring to Callout

Because SRP crews already had laptops in their trucks, the utility initially saw the mobile callout app as a way to monitor crews. With the app on the supervisor’s BlackBerry, SRP saw a smart, efficient way for supervisors to extend or release a crew from a normal day’s work with a few keystrokes. Using the mobile app to perform a callout was an evolutionary step. After SRP successfully beta tested the mobile app, the utility rolled out the app in early March to a subset of its field maintenance supervisors who are responsible for 130 crew members. The mobile callout app runs on the BlackBerry OS version 4.5 and higher. The app uses SRP’s existing BlackBerry data plan to connect to e-mail or the Internet. And SRP can distribute the mobile app to supervisors via the company’s BlackBerry administrator or as a link in an e-mail.

SRP’s conservation culture keeps driving the company to find new ways to preserve resources. Adding the mobile callout application to the automated callout software already in place gives supervisors more flexibility to initiate callouts and gets crews to outages faster.

For example, once a dispatcher notifies a supervisor of an emergency (e.g., a storm or lightning outage), the supervisor must assemble a four- or two-person crew. Using the mobile callout app, supervisors can scroll through templates to choose the reason for the callout and create a custom message for crews.

A Seamless Experience for Crews

From the crews’ perspective, the mobile app hasn’t changed the automated callout process. When a supervisor triggers a callout from the mobile or Web-based system, crews receive a phone call, text message or e-mail according to their preference.

Supervisors who use the mobile callout app say it frees them from their laptops and shaves minutes off the callout process.

It could take supervisors several minutes from the time a dispatcher alerts them to an after-hours emergency to the moment they reach a laptop, turn it on and send a callout. With the mobile app, that time is slashed.

If a supervisor is relying on the mobile app but loses reception, SRP has backup plans. When a supervisor doesn’t respond to a call to his or her BlackBerry, the SRP dispatch group calls his or her home phone and pager. If there’s still no response, which is unlikely, the dispatcher knows that every supervisor who has after-hours duty also has an assigned backup supervisor. The call immediately would go to the backup.

SRP will continue working to refine the mobile callout app. One idea is to add e-mail enhancements, such as notifying supervisors when crews complete jobs. In the meantime, SRP supervisors have a first-of-its-kind mobile app for improving restoration times.

The next time someone thinks about callout at SRP, the company’s supervisors can offer the familiar refrain, “There’s an app for that.”

Mark Bell is a section supervisor for SRP Reactive Maintenance, based in Phoenix.

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