by Kimberly A. Smith, ComEd
Organized chaos is the way some people describe managing crews when facing adverse weather. The process works. Utilities always restore power. But the process for many utilities, including ComEd, always has required a lot more steps than anyone would like. With more than 90,000 miles of power lines in an 11,400-square-mile territory stretching from Northern Illinois across Chicago and east to the Indiana border, ComEd has 3.8 million customers to keep connected.
Eleven Steps to Restoration
As early as 2011, ComEd had been discussing the possibility of streamlining its crew management process. After any major event, ComEd would hear its people grumble about the time-consuming 11-step process for building and deploying crews before, during and after adverse weather.
When ComEd received a forecast of adverse weather, the weather alert triggered managers to enhance staffing levels, assign extended shifts and submit rosters, or “bump sheets,” for crews. The first step in the 11-step process was launching a callout via the Arcos System, a Web-based callout and scheduling platform, while current crew schedules were locked in. The callout to hundreds of employees would take only minutes, and ComEd could establish who was available for storm work.
The next 10 steps, however, could take hours. As part of the process, supervisors would complete a form on a computer spreadsheet documenting crew data (e.g., crew members’ skills, equipment, etc.) and email this to a folder. The personnel that report to the regional storm centers then would open the folder and begin entering the crew data from the spreadsheet into a database. The reports made their way to the ComEd Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Joliet, Illinois. But sometimes is took up to a four-hour wait before information about the makeup and number of crews was able to be viewed accurately.
An Uphill Fight Preparing for Outages
During this wait, dispatchers were uncertain of the availability of resources by shift and the composition of crews, so there was a lag in assigning jobs. Storm center personnel couldn’t validate the full staffing levels, which delayed accurate crew counts. And EOC leaders couldn’t determine quickly if contractors and mutual assistance crews were needed or how many. It was an uphill fight to prepare for major outage events and inform regulators and the media about restoration progress.
Utilities across North America routinely confront these challenges. Whiteboards, spreadsheets, phone calls and paper files are the foundation for most crew-building and deployment processes whether on blue-sky or dark-sky days. And even if a utility builds a computerized system for the task, these homegrown efforts are rarely Web-based applications capable of easily generating reports about resources on the street or working an individual circuit.
Replacing Spreadsheets With a Central Database
For example, at Iberdrola USA’s operating companies in New York, keeping count of crews could take more than 500 spreadsheets at times, said Kerri Foster, manager of transmission and distribution support, programs and projects for Central Maine Power Co., part of Iberdrola USA. During spring 2012, Iberdrola USA, NSTAR (an operating company of Northeast Utilities), Pepco Holdings Inc. (PHI) and solutions provider Arcos LLC developed a system to automate crew management. ComEd also provided significant initial ideas on the early design, as well as after the product was released in 2013. The system, dubbed Crew Manager, created a centralized database to drag and drop crews into position. Frontline supervisors and other managers could access the database via tablets, laptops or from storm room monitors to plan for and conduct restoration efforts. The system also can simulate staffing scenarios and react in real time to complex, changing conditions.
During fall 2013, Iberdrola USA, NSTAR and PHI subsidiary Delmarva Power piloted the finished product. Iberdrola USA was the first utility to begin using the system in October 2013; Central Maine Power Co. tapped into the system for the first time a month later during a storm.
Momentum Builds for Automated Crew Management
In 2013, ComEd approached senior management with the concept for automating its crew management. One of the keys to gaining ComEd management’s agreement was the promise of a faster, more efficient crew-building and deployment process. Gaining widespread adoption for the system among frontline supervisors also was critical, according to ComEd senior managers.
Knowing it would be difficult to transition from one process for blue-sky crew management and another for dark-sky crew-building, ComEd adopted the system for around-the-clock crew management. After implementing the Web-based software and training its supervisors and clerical teams, ComEd launched the new automated crew management system on May 30, 2014.
Later that summer, Northeast Utilities and Ameren Missouri announced that they, too, planned to implement the system. The week of June 29, ComEd experienced widespread outages. Because of impending weather, the utility put the new system to work. A forecast warned ComEd about threatening storm activity. And in the early hours of June 30, thunderstorms moved west to east through the Illinois cities of Dixon, Aurora and Joliet and the village of Crestwood.
Streamlining the Crew-building Process
Crew Manager reduced ComEd’s 11-step process to a four-step process. Once ComEd received the forecast, supervisors launched automated callouts to determine crew availability. The frontline supervisors (FLS) used the system to assign crews to storm shifts. Because the FLS were maintaining control of the composition of crews and schedules in the system during normal business hours, they were able to transition to tracking crews during the storms.
Virtual monitoring uses color-coded badges to track and filter crew makeup by attributes such as crew name, job classification, phone number and truck type. Like Iberdrola USA, ComEd FLS were able to use the system’s drag-and-drop features to build crews. To aid ComEd’s planning, managers in the utility’s four regional storm centers tapped the system to view current staffing levels; they also scheduled staffing levels set for future times and dates.
From the EOC, a manager created a report to share with the system incident commander (SIC), vice presidents and senior leadership. After ComEd completed its restoration, the third step entailed supervisors’ releasing crews from storm shifts with the system. The fourth step in the new, streamlined process had supervisors update crew schedules for the blue-sky days after the storm.
For ComEd, the system runs most efficiently when FLS and clerical staff are disciplined about making updates to crew data. For example, if the crew makeup or shift times change, supervisors must reflect that information in the system to maintain an accurate view of the crew members on the street in the central database.
By making Crew Manager the hub for crew information, the FLS can configure different views of the available crews around-the-clock. FLS can sort crews by the type of truck (e.g., a 4×4, bucket truck or pole truck). And if they want to separate crew members from equipment, it takes only a few clicks to build a new crew and deploy them, for instance, from Libertyville to Dixon. The system visually depicts those moves before supervisors decide to make them.
A Blue-sky and Dark-sky View of Crews
The system offers managers data about internal and external crews. It also covers the time before and after an automated callout; it simulates many staffing and logistics scenarios and, in turn, builds crews in real time to meet changing conditions. But this also means managers must learn how to create concise reports from the system for senior leadership, vice presidents and field incident commanders in the EOC who don’t use or view the system daily. Automating the crew management process gives a utility a way to maintain control of crew makeup and schedules throughout a normal day while improving or imposing the seamless transition into tracking crews during storms. A supervisor can toggle between a blue-sky and dark-sky view of crew resources and select, for example, hotel rooms needed for a crew that might be held over for additional work in a different region.
For people looking at our industry from the outside in, it can seem like a simple exercise to call crews and send them to where power is out. That’s what we have to do. But weather, equipment and unexpected circumstances such as a change in staffing levels or road conditions can complicate restoration and crew building. The public’s interest in knowing when power will be restored leads the media and regulators to scrutinize crew management. Adopting a crew management system helps ComEd anticipate its needs and reshuffle resources in changing conditions. The utility can stay in front of requests for information. Knowing where ComEd’s crews are and predicting what’s needed also makes the utility smarter about obtaining contractor crews and requesting mutual assistance from other utilities.
ComEd has automated crew management in a short time. And the utility has made great strides in efficiency and centralizing data on crews. There’s more work to be done. Managers continue to refine the best way to report information the new system offers. FLS, clerical and others are perfecting the process for capturing and sharing specific crew information. But more utilities are automating crew management. That means ComEd can share and learn best practices with what might become a coast-to-coast group that manages crews automatically through sunshine and storms.
As director of emergency preparedness for ComEd, Kimberly A. Smith is responsible for oversight, development and execution of emergency preparedness and response strategies. Reach her at email@example.com.