Technology is enabling a safety-first culture

SOS staging facility for Hurricane Ida Baton Rouge LA. Credit: Bill Perry.

During my 40 years in the industry, I’ve seen a positive evolution in the relationship between utility employees and the external resources that assist with service restoration. The relationship has matured and for most utilities it has become a partnership. Contractors and utility personnel are a team with a common goal:  Safely and efficiently restore power and get the community back to normal.

That said, when contractors answer the call to work a storm, they don’t all have what it takes to do the job. I recall a utility foreman telling me about one of the crews that arrived on his property to help with a storm. They were from a small outfit, and the foreman learned that only one of the four crew members had the skill to work on an energized primary. The others were barely qualified to be groundmen. He told them to go home; they weren’t happy. In talking with the foreman, he said he would rather have someone mad at him than have to tell his family he won’t be coming home.

The foreman, of course, did the right thing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, line work is among the top-ten civilian occupations with the highest rates of fatal injuries at about 20 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers each year. Any fatality is one too many, though.

As the number of utility customers and the demand for electric power grows, restoration requires bringing more people onto a utility’s property. These resources fill gaps in many areas (e.g., transmission & distribution line, underground, vegetation management, assessors, safety, supply chain, logistics, traffic control, drone operators, and more). Tracking people’s required skill sets for each job assignment is increasingly complex. Often tracking and accounting is done by hand, with paper, pencil, whiteboards, and spreadsheets.

Automating damage assessment

This is where collaborative technologies like GIS, resource management, and project management solutions (if integrated) can play a valuable part in helping utilities and contractors. These integrated technologies allow storm center managers, schedulers, and dispatchers account for crews’ skills and track what equipment they have as well as job site briefings and safety visits.

Here’s an example of how it could work:  A damage assessor reports on a downed line and transmits this data to the utility’s scheduling department, which electronically shares that information with their OMS and resource managements solutions. With that report comes the assessor’s note that the crew will have to occupy a lane of traffic to carry out the work. The scheduler receives the damage assessor’s comments in real-time and checks what personnel and equipment managers need to safely perform the job. Next, they select a crew with the proper skills and equipment to control traffic or assign a traffic control team to assist the crew.

During large events when moving crews around is less practical, the scheduler can assign a traffic control team to work an entire area for as long as needed. Either scenario reduces risk and eliminates the possibility that the crew would be assigned a job without the required skill set and call to request equipment and/or traffic management services. As situations multiply during a major restoration, collaborative software tools offer a way to coordinate the work of storm center managers, dispatchers, field resources, and damage assessors.

Real-time damage assessments pouring in from the field can also help break work into, say, live or de-energized. If a conductor is de-energized, crews with no live-line experience (or unable to work on a higher distribution voltage) can tackle the job because they don’t need hot sticks or rubber gloves, unless otherwise specified by the utility. Layered over that requirement is an OSHA rule dictating that crews carrying out live-line work must have a qualified observer with the skill (as defined by OSHA) to identify nominal voltages, energized components, minimum approach distances, and proper safe work practices, while crew members are working on energized lines.

Putting automated damage assessment into practice

A Gulf Coast utility I know of has experimented with mobile technologies for identifying the location and extent of the storm damage to its infrastructure and determining the crews and materials required for repair. Its assessors use a GIS system and the mobile device location services on smartphones, tablets, or laptops to rapidly report and transmit damage for storm managers to assign resources and establish an ETR. That blend of readily available technology gives emergency management and event coordinators situational awareness — one view of what’s happening across several screens. Field crews can access network data on their mobile device and work online or offline, giving them access to the reference information they need, including feeder patrol directions, even when they are in areas with no cell or Wi-Fi coverage.

Digitizing contractor crews’ skills

By creating an interface with a utility’s HR database, managers can get data about utility employees’ skills; this helps managers make strategic decisions. For contract crews, skills are linked to rosters supplied by the vendor and delivered to the utility. Keeping tabs on external crews’ skills is a time-consuming manual task for contractors and utilities, peppered with phone calls and emails to update rosters.

To overcome these challenges, a Midwest investor-owned utility has launched a portal where all concerned can view where resources are presently working, obtain their release, respond to requests, input information about crews, pre-build crews, and even swap crew members in the event a worker with a particular skill is needed elsewhere or becomes sick. The updates happen electronically, and rosters take shape right away.

Having a real-time view of the amount of damage and the skill set and location of crews enables a utility’s emergency operations center to create the best strategy for scheduling work that safely shortens a storm’s tail. Integrating technologies like GIS, OMS, HR platforms and resource management solutions is increasingly happening at utilities like the Gulf Coast and Midwest utilities mentioned above. This approach helps managers and contractors spend more time on what matters such as creating and vetting strategies for swifter, safer restoration. A manager’s goal is staffing each job with the right vehicles, skilled people, and correct equipment for the environment. Technology makes that happen quicker and safer than age-old manual processes.


Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operations, Product and Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at jnowak@arcos-inc.com.

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Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility's distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company's operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute's (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI's National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC.

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