Survey: Damage assessment key to effective outage restoration

by John Kullmann, Macrosoft

The number and severity of weather events seem to be increasing each year. During the summer, many states endured record heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Others were hard hit by severe thunderstorms–many with little or no warning. These events caused power outages and hardships for electricity providers and their customers. Nevertheless, the events appear mild compared with Hurricane Sandy, which left more than 8 million customers without power as it traveled up the East Coast in late October.

Sandy’s flood surge in parts of New York and along the New Jersey coast was the highest on record. Sandy is the latest severe weather event of the past decade to set records. The long list of such events continues to grow.

Extreme weather inflicts hardships on those in their paths. Few, however, are impacted by these events like electric utilities, their employees and their customers. When the lights go out, everyone suffers, and it seems customers’ patience is decreasing. Utilities must find ways to improve outage restoration. One of the first steps is damage assessment.

In August, software design and development company Marcrosoft Inc. surveyed 23 North American utilities, including investor-owned, cooperative and municipals, to identify damage assessment best practices, trends and challenges (see Figure 1).

Participants represented a mix of large and small companies, serving from more than 3 million customers to less than 100,000 customers (see Figure 2).

Important Findings

The survey revealed that best practices in the industry require companies to implement plans, tools and processes to support scalability as an event grows. Survey results showed that the most popular procedure for assessing damage is manual and paper processes. More than 90 percent of the surveyed utilities said efficient damage assessment is a high contributing factor to a successful restoration event, yet only 19 percent of the companies can complete damage assessments on time.

Although the surveyed utilities use a mix of homegrown solutions and commercial tools, more than 83 percent said they are not fully satisfied with their current damage assessment processes and tools. Damage information often is left incomplete because existing processes and tools are cumbersome and time-consuming. In addition, information collected often is inconsistent because assessors do not follow a structured data collection process.

The survey concluded that field assessors must have tools and systems to work successfully in remote locations and receive assignments in the field on the go. Assessors must report accurate damage information in real time and provide valuable estimates on time and materials to speed up repairs.

Based on participant input, an ideal damage assessment process must contain:

  • A standard, structured procedure that can be followed by all assessors and contractors. It must be easy-to-use for utility employees and intuitive for contract assessors without extensive training.
  • Integrated interface or ability to communicate field data with existing outage management system and other utility management tools.
  • Field reports submitted to storm centers that contain consistent, mandatory and optional damage information.
  • Flexible report templates that can handle unique situations and relate meaningful information.
  • A live, fast link between field reports and home office systems.
  • Initial data-gathering process with a structured approach that walks assessors through a logical assessment process.
  • Phased assessment process with drive-by results followed by detailed assessment, if required, based on scope of event.
  • Scalable process used for day-to-day operations, as well as large-scale events.
  • Ability to use smart phones, mobile data terminals and other portable devices while avoiding large hardware investment costs.

Large-scale vs. Small-scale Events

For survey purposes, Macrosoft defined a major emergency outage as an event that affects more than 5 percent of a utility’s customers longer than 24 hours.

When asked if they had endured an event that required them to open storm centers, 48 percent said major events caused them to open storm centers three or more times last year. Most of these utilities had different processes for large-scale events vs. smaller events. Utilities that opened storm centers fewer than three times per year, however, were more likely to maintain the same assessment process for both large-scale and day-to-day outages. These utilities reported that field damage assessors are assigned tickets, geographic areas or circuits based on the utility’s needs.

Day-to-day assessment dispatches are scenario-based in a large-scale event, however, where a two-step approach is used by 68 percent of surveyed utilities. An initial phase establishes the scope and scale of the damage, followed by a detailed assessment. During large-scale outages, utilities adjust their damage assessment processes to deal with the increased work volume.

During major events, the damage assessment process is transferred outside of the operations center. Damage assessment teams or contract assessors who often are unqualified or ill-equipped to make repairs are used for damage assessment. Fifty-three percent of utilities used contract assessors in addition to their own employees.

Locating the Damage

The survey found that data is delivered and collected by assessors in different ways. Large utilities that deployed more contract assessors prefer assigning tasks through outage tickets and circuits during large-scale outages.

The larger a company’s customer base, the more likely assessors will be assigned circuits to find and assess damage. This creates a need for tools and systems for field assessors to work remotely. Smaller companies also suggested using this process.

The most common information given to assessors is location or street address, circuit, ticket number and a brief damage description (see Figure 3).

Survey respondents said location is the most important information; however, that information should be provided as a street address. Latitude and longitudinal information was least important, according to survey respondents.

Thirty-seven percent of utilities reported using a manual or paper-driven damage assessment processes, 31 percent host a homegrown solution developed in house, 16 percent use a module within a larger, commercially available outage management system, 9 percent use off-the-shelf commercial damage assessment tools and 7 percent use other systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition.

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents provide electronic and network maps, and 32 percent provide paper maps. The analysis indicates that the respondents who use modules within their larger systems found electronic maps such as Google and GPS more useful than paper or network maps. Similarly, respondents who use commercial tools and homegrown solutions also have identified electronic maps as the best solution. Only those respondents who use manual or paper systems said they provide paper maps to field assessors.

Using Damage Assessment Data

No surveyed utilities reported collecting photos of the damage, estimated work hours to repair or travel conditions. Many, however, are collecting weather conditions but deemed that information unnecessary. Figure 4 shows the use of damage assessment data after it is collected.

Use of Damage Data Collected

Surveyed utilities said damage assessment solutions are integrated with geographic information systems, outage management systems, mobile data and other tools (see Figure 5).

Damage assessment is but one of the steps needed to restore power after a severe weather event.

It is, however, one of the most important steps for successful outage restoration, according to survey participants.

These survey results indicate utilities are well-aware of damage assessment’s importance, but many still have a long way to go to make the process as effective as possible.

Author

John Kullmann is vice president of Macrosoft. He has more than 25 years of experience as the executive business contact responsible for client satisfaction for a wide variety of companies. He is the executive interface to all utility company clients at Macrosoft.

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