Information Critical to Vegetation Management Programs

by Paul S. Hurysz Jr., Powel

What constitutes a good vegetation management (VM) program?

Put a few utility maintenance people or foresters together, and there will be a lot of answers. All might agree that VM is a risk management program that addresses liabilities created by trees and other plant life because those pose the largest threat to electrical transmission and distribution systems.

They also will agree that public and employee safety, asset health and regulatory compliance are the chief liability concerns a good maintenance program should try to mitigate.

So, what constitutes a good VM program? Information. A successful program is determined by these factors:

  • How well a utility gathers and maintains information about its operations,
  • How well a utility uses that information to deploy personnel,
  • How well a utility forwards information to regulators, and
  • How well a utility shares information with the public.

To carry out maintenance management and do it well, utilities should focus on: employee safety and training, contractor safety and performance, regulatory change and customer communication.

Analytics Improve Performance

Utilities have a host of electronic mobile hardware at their disposal. The hardware helps with data capture in the field that can be synchronized with enterprise-level applications. Provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 helped create an environment where utilities migrated from proprietary strategies to standardized practices for gathering more types of field data.

As good as these mobile tools are, they lack consistency. Consistent methodology for data capture and transcription will allow analytical tools to identify potential maintenance challenges. GPS tracking can capture data points in a format that’s easily reproduced, shared or assigned to others. It can be checked against past data for a better understanding of geography and history. It also can compare funding work types and enable reminders.

This information becomes more valuable with work plans. Rather than handing contractors a map and expecting them to give a response in the form of a report or bid, a utility can prepare a comprehensive maintenance blueprint based on historical fact that identifies exact locations, types of work, access issues and estimated cost to assist contractors with plans and evaluations. Improving utility and contractor maintenance tasks tops most vegetation managers’ operation and maintenance goals.

Information Improves Safety

Safety is the foundation for any maintenance program.

Utility employees working along distribution or transmission rights-of-way can’t always depend on smooth or complete internal communication. Previously, tools didn’t exist to transfer information onto the next guy, department or organization.

Technology brings us knowledge of a crew’s location and options for safe access along a right-of-way. These items no longer must be local knowledge; they can live forever as attributes on base map layers available to all. Creating GPS crumb trails becomes a legacy item that can be left for the next crew, inspector, surveyor or lineman.

These layers might include details about field conditions after a storm. Flood-prone areas can be identified; logistics coordinators are informed about hazards and might reprioritize storm recovery activities around those hazards. A layer noting previous confrontations with an angry property owner could prevent potentially unsafe situations, as well. Identifying land with harmful vegetation such as poison ivy, sumac and oak or dangerous wildlife such as alligators can alert personnel of hazards prior to entry.

The proper tools with comprehensive regional historical data will provide better worker, environment and utility asset protection. Proper tools ensure proper protection of people, finances, rights and responsibilities.

Reporting Improves Communication

VM communication with public entities is often as important to utilities as internal communication. Data collected for maintenance planning and execution also can inform about how the program impacts a neighborhood or can help streamline reports gathered for regulators.

Utilities want to communicate more effectively with the general public via Web or direct mail. This has been a positive change. Utilities want to make the public aware of maintenance activities and their reasons, locations and impacts. This pre-emptive, more transparent communication slowly is reversing years of open criticism. When maintenance projects directly correlate with improved service, such as fewer outages, utilities can receive positive public feedback.

Whether utilities face regulatory pressures or public relations issues, utility managers have the responsibility to be forthright. They want to be confident with the answers they give. Having charts and bar graphs and pictures associated with reports can help explain a solution and its costs. When tabular, reports sometimes create more confusion than answers. Dashboard reporting allows vegetation managers to show a program’s results, progress and future effectiveness.

Vegetation managers often must identify problem areas while maintaining budget limitations. Work management software and hardware tools tackle these issues and pay for themselves through performance analytics.

In each case–analytics, safety or communication–a dedicated information program produces significant improvement in VM results.

Paul S. Hurysz Jr. is product manager of vegetation management system solutions at Powel Inc.

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