Case study: Sumter EMC expands coverage with wide area network

Sumter Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) is a not-for-profit electric utility that provides power to its 19,500 members throughout 11 counties in southwest Georgia. As a service cooperative, Sumter EMC is owned by those it serves and provides electric power at cost to its members, who participate in setting policies and making decisions.

Challenge: Ensure safety, improve service, and reduce expenses. Reliable, clear communications are critical for the safety and productivity of the line workers and other field workers responsible for maintaining Sumter EMC’s 3,000 miles of distribution line that covers 2,200 square miles throughout southwest Georgia.

With heavily wooded terrain that extends through both city and rural areas, anything less than seamless coverage throughout the entire footprint was not an option.

“Even though we were using a three-repeater system, the old 800 MHz system just couldn’t penetrate in a lot of areas with dense foliage, or reach all the way to the fringes of the area,” says David Brokamp, vice president of engineering, Sumter EMC.

With a nearly 20-year-old 800 MHz analog system that could no longer be maintained without significant expense, as well as coverage issues that could have compromised worker safety and productivity, Sumter EMC began to look for new technology to upgrade its communications capability.

In addition, as a not-for-profit corporation, Sumter EMC was also always on the lookout for ways to increase the efficiency and productivity of its workforce and reduce costs for its members.

“When we dispatch a field worker to an outage, we try to send the truck that is closest to the outage site,” Brokamp says. “With the old system, we really didn’t have any way to track their exact location. Without that knowledge, we took the chance that we were dispatching a truck that was 30 miles away vs. a team who might have been closer and could have had the customer back in service much more quickly.”

Solution: MOTOTRBO IP Site Connect with Motorola Point-to-Point Wireless Broadband Solution for Wide Area Coverage. Brokamp contacted Stephen Woodham, sales consultant, Albany Communications, a Motorola channel partner, and explained the situation.

Woodham recommended MOTOTRBO, a digital two-way radio system designed to meet the requirements of organizations that require a customizable, business-critical communication solution using licensed radio spectrum.

The system provides a complete dual mode (analog and digital) system including repeaters, mobile and portable units, data applications, and accessories for a customizable, affordable solution that meets the specific needs of the business.

The IP Site Connect capability of the system allows a number of radio sites to be connected to provide seamless coverage. The MOTOTRBO RDAC (Repeater Diagnostic Alarm and Control) feature allows a system administrator the ability to monitor and control the remote transmitters throughout the system.

Woodham also recommended Motorola’s Point-to-Point solution to complete the connection of the three repeater sites, creating a wide area network that would cover Sumter EMC’s entire 2,200-square- mile coverage area.

“The great thing about this solution is that it puts everybody on the same channel,” Brokamp says. “If a lineman on the far side of our territory needs to contact me, I know he’ll be able to get through. If I need to leave the office, I can take my radio with me and talk to them just like I’m sitting in Dispatch. It’s effective, efficient, and gives us that added flexibility.”

Sumter EMC developed a program using Comtran Associates’ Street Trek software that, along with MOTOTRBO’s built-in GPS, enables dispatch to enter the location of a reported outage, identify the closest maintenance truck, and then dispatch that truck to the outage.

Sumter also leverages the versatility of the TurboVUi application from CTI Products for radio dispatch via an IP connection. This system capability can also allow Sumter to maintain radio dispatch connectivity from remote locations.

“This has helped us significantly reduce our response time and enables our field workers to deliver improved service for our customers,” Brokamp says.

Benefits: Safety first, safety always. Power outages don’t just happen from 9 to 5 and with a workforce that often works alone at night in inclement weather, having the ability to track in near real-time where employees are located is invaluable.

“You hope you never have a need to call on that feature but if you do, the response time can mean the difference between life and death,” Brokamp says. “You just can’t put a value on safety.”

The system also allows Sumter EMC to take a proactive stance on safety issues by helping to prevent catastrophic accidents. For example, whenever the utility needs to energize a line after an outage, they need to make sure all personnel in that area are out of the way prior to flipping the switch.

“We used to have to call and check with each worker first to make sure they’re clear,” says Brokamp. “Obtaining clearances from all workers using only a manual checklist, no matter how carefully done, still involves the risk of human error. Now with the GPS application, we can verify that the list of cleared workers includes all those in the vicinity of the outage. Although we still do the manual checks, the GPS is an invaluable failsafe in case we miss somebody or if someone decides on their own to go do some work somewhere without telling us.”

Sumter EMC counted on Motorola to come through with a solution that would enhance field worker safety, expand coverage throughout the territory, help them improve service to their members, and lower operational cost.

That confidence was put to the test recently when heavy storms blew through central and northern Georgia, knocking down power lines and leaving customers without power. Responding to a call for help from several other Georgia EMCs, Sumter EMC’s field teams used direct mobile-to-mobile communications to safely work through the night helping to restore power and get the EMCs’ customers back online quickly and efficiently.

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