Forty to 60 percent of the workers restoring power after events like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey come from the contracting workforce. Before the first customer gets back online, crews need to know where they’ll work, sleep, eat and how long they be there. The time to allocate, coordinate and brief resources varies from utility to utility. Some supply new crews with construction standards prior to arrival to reduce time for initial orientation. Others seek contractors familiar with the service territory to get things rolling faster.
Securing resources beyond a utility’s property can be cumbersome, often complex and at times confusing. Over the past 50 years, regionally, utilities have formed agreements that help share both company and contract resources. However, the industry has no universally accepted way to share crew information (i.e., rosters), onboard crews, and communicate between utilities and contractors what’s needed, where and when. But it should.
Current state of collaboration
The way emergency managers, logistics chiefs and regional managers work with contracting companies to get crews and equipment on site and into action is more art than science. The stakes are high if you assume a daily cost per FTE between $2,000 and $4,000 (which assumes equipment, overhead and logistic needs) for a major event. Every hour resources sit idly by costs the utility, while negatively impacting customer satisfaction and restoration efficiency.
After a utility secures its contract crews, sometimes they arrive before the roster, which can be lost in an avalanche of email traffic. The result: A utility holds off onboarding or unintentionally sends crews home because nobody expected them. This can trigger another request to bring in more crews to meet their looming ETR. The utility restores power, but at a greater cost.
For many utilities, the fulcrum for building and tracking crews is an emailed spreadsheet. With inaccurate rosters, late or lost rosters and muddled communication lines, contract crews can arrive to work and find at best a hotel room floor to sleep on, at worst no lodging. In my experience, during significant events utilities seldom get all their external contract crews without a hitch. When the process works smoothly, it’s because a contractor has support staff who are savvy with spreadsheets, and the utility has dedicated staff to monitor and communicate with external resources.
A way forward
But just as spreadsheets killed the fax with regard to managing rosters, multi-user applications like Edison Electric Institute’s RAMP-UP software might soon write the obituary for spreadsheets. RAMP-UP, which stands for Resource Allocation Management Program for Utility Personnel, is a multi-user application for handling requests for mutual assist crews during regional or national events.
Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) tap into RAMP-UP’s portal to allocate resources. RAMP-UP gives IOUs a way to enter their requests, provide resources and match requests with other resources offered. At this time it does not provide resource details (i.e., a roster). When a utility releases its company or contractors to another utility, that action feeds into RAMP-UP. There are minor gaps, though. First, if a utility calls a contractor directly and the contractor finds resources from a coop or municipal utility, the utility and contractor handle that exchange between themselves and not RAMP-UP. Second, when coops and munis release contractor resources, they exchange information (e.g., rosters and contact information) via emails and phone calls.
All utilities need a way to visualize available crews and help link utility requests and contractor crews to get people where they need to be, while seeing the progress of those crews in real-time from departure to arrival and finally release. The best solution would replace a utility’s myriad handmade spreadsheets, phone calls, texts and emails with real-time data for a contract crew’s availability, make-up and location.
Contractors, too, would like to ditch spreadsheets and phone calls and see where their resources are at any given time; respond faster to utility requests; and pre-build crews or even swap crew members in the event a specialty worker is needed elsewhere.
A system like this wouldn’t have to compete with RAMP-UP, either. When regional outages kick off mutual assist events, RMAG governance could take over and the solution would support a utility in identifying crews to offer the RMAG. With utilities, contractors and vendors working together, a system like this could put the industry in sync for managing resources.
“Anything that can help organize the industry around resources is a help,” said Brian Standish, director of Operations for Quanta Services, the largest specialty utility contractor in North America. “As the demand from regulators and customers continues to influence utilities’ response times, a single system could help improve those response times.”