Utilities must focus on improved outage management

By David Samuel, IBM Corp.

Nov. 19, 2003 — About the only thing worse than a power outage is the uncertainty of not knowing when the problem will be fixed. Families scramble to stay cool and keep food from spoiling. Business owners shut their doors, calculate lost revenue and wonder when they will re-open.

With summer now at an end, the utilities industry will be looking back at the significant amount of time and resources that was spent maintaining physical assets and recovering from outages when they occurred. But, as we all know, restoring service to customers is simply not enough.

In addition to restoration activities, utilities must do a better job of communicating the status of an outage and the expected recovery time to emergency services, affected customers, the media, local government and the public utilities commission. Poor communication has often turned a relatively small-scale outage into a full-scale public relations nightmare.

And in a deregulated, competitive environment, utilities cannot afford to let that happen — or to be ranked low on their ability to manage service outages because of communication lapses.

Unfortunately, the most commonly used outage management process, characterized by labor-intensive, voice-based operations, is not designed for efficiently communicating recovery activities to all of the utility’s constituencies. Low-tech communications management can often be a far more daunting task than managing the physical recovery.

While it’s true that most utilities have automated communications between customer service reps and the outage management systems, many have not extended that automation to their field staff. Further, outage management is generally not integrated into an overall information and communications system that can track the recovery process in real time and communicate that progress to all constituents. And when people are kept out of the loop during an emergency, they tend to assume the worst¾an impression that lasts even when the emergency has passed, human nature being what it is.

Technology can help prevent this scenario. Utilizing technology that integrates processes, lines of communications and computing resources can keep customers updated on outage status on a timely basis. And, keeping customers in the loop means that call centers will not be overwhelmed with inquiries.

Public officials and the media can be apprised of recovery times on a continual basis, so expectations are in line with reality. Information can flow from the field to the outage-management team in real time. With accurate, up-to-date information, the utility can manage communications rather than being victimized by rumors and speculation.

Such improvements not only enable the utility to burnish its image with its constituents, but the efficiencies resulting from this integrated process may result in reducing the time and cost of recovery as well.

Improving outage management is a four-step process for most utilities.

First, the utility must design an outage management model, simulating processes that would occur in the event of an actual outage.

Second, it must link all of its management, information, and field systems into a single, integrated technology infrastructure.

Third, it must ensure flexible, timely and transparent communications with its customers, suppliers and subcontractors, public officials, emergency facilities and the media. And fourth, it must establish command, control, and review processes to manage the system and make improvements and upgrades as warranted.

Key to the success of integrated outage management is its ability to interact fluidly with outside systems, to build easily upon existing technology platforms, and to be adaptable enough to allow for future trauma-free change. Such technology improvements might seem to be “nice to haves” instead of “need to haves,” but they will go a long way in improving customer service, customer loyalty and customer retention.

What will an outage scenario look like with integrated management? It will be considerably less chaotic than is currently the case. From the first report of an outage, information will flow to all involved parties. Field crews will have wireless devices that will enable them to continuously update the outage management team, which can then issue progress reports and assessments with virtually no time lag.

Everyone will know what’s going on; and with efficient communications damage control, the team will be able to focus on their primary responsibility: repairing the physical damage.

Sound like Utopia? It’s not; it’s simply a vision of what technology can do to ensure that all processes work together to create open, real-time communications when they’re needed most. After all, it’s in the best interests of the utilities industry not to keep people in the dark.

About the Author: Samuel is general manager of IBM’s Global Energy and Utilities industry. Prior to this role, he was vice president of information services and CIO at NSTAR Electric and Gas Corp.

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