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Putting data where the work is during disasters

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As of Sunday, September 16, CNN reported that about 760,000 customers were without power in the Carolinas due to the impact of Hurricane Florence. Cities like Wilmington, N.C., are inaccessible due to rising flood waters.

As utilities from across the country send crews to help Wilmington and other places recover from Florence, technologies like mobile digital computers (MDC), rugged laptops and GPS have put data into the hands of field crews. Just a few years ago, one utility I know of had a stack of manuals for each of its trucks–topics ranging from construction standards to payroll–that would stand four feet high if stacked cover to cover. The days of the paper manual are quickly vanishing. But putting data where the work happens isn’t just about giving field crews the technology they need to restore service.

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Teamwork through the Storm: How to Bridge Operational Disconnect

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A utility stands on the shoulders of its operation team–the people who keep the lights on, provide service for new customers and maintain or add to existing infrastructure. These teams include a supporting cast of dispatchers, supervisors, store room employees, supply chain professionals and schedulers.

Technology–such as outage management systems (OMS), work management systems (WMS), resource management platforms and damage assessment software–can link the team together, but not always. When daily or blue-sky operations shift to dark-sky work, some industry vets have called the changeover organized chaos. Utilities always bring the lights back on. But there can be disconnects as a team transitions from daily operations to restoration mode.

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Two keys for cybersecurity: collaboration and focus

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This summer the U.S. government created the National Risk Management Center to coordinate the defense of U.S. infrastructure – including energy companies – from cyberattacks. The NRMC isn’t the only group focused on security. EEI’s Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) also partners with the government to protect the grid. And the American Public Power Association offers online tools to help its members with security concerns. Cybersecurity is a hot topic; the stakes are high.

It’s encouraging to see the government bring public and private players together. This reminds me of how lawmakers kick-started patient security via electronic health records more than a decade ago.

What makes someone secure are the practices they engage in around the clock and the type of platform they invest in. And, frankly, we’re better than most of our utility company partners in this regard only because generating power is a utility’s core competency; writing code and designing secure, cloud solutions is our expertise.

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Utility Emergency Response Plans and Changing Workforce Needs

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Utilities nationwide are investing in and deploying a new generation of network technology that promises to enhance the efficiency, reliability and resilience of energy distribution. This encompasses designing, implementing and managing new business models, organizational structures and mechanisms revolving around emergency response processes and systems that require significant shifts in workforce management.

Leading-edge digital technologies being tested and put to productive use in the field include;

  • Wireless sensors
  • Energy Internet of Things devices
  • Battery-based energy storage
  • Mobile-device apps
  • Drones (aka unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs)
  • Enterprise power grid and distributed energy resources management platforms
  • Augmented and virtual reality systems

As the list continues to grow and expand, technological and organizational transformation at the speed, scope and scale utilities are undertaking today comes with correspondingly high challenges and risks.

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Calling all Drones and Chatbots

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What would the utility industry look like if we could call out drones to assess damage and chatbots to staff call centers? Picture service centers and substations with mini-hangars containing drones preprogrammed to assess circuits, feeders and other assets. A storm center manager could activate the drones and collect images and data via integrated damage-assessment software. The drones would only need to report something as broken because the damage assessment software would identify the asset and electronically deliver the details to an OMS or WMS to help generate a restoration plan.

At the same time, dispatchers could launch call-center chatbots as the OMS reported outages. As customers began contacting the utility for information about outages and ETRs, the chatbots would peel away time that humans would normally need to field customer queries.

Most utilities recognize drones can play a role in expediting inspection of infrastructure like transmission lines. And that familiarity is leading utilities to deploy drones after major events, too.

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A Culture of Customer Service

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What does customer service look like in a Small Giants company? No matter your industry, how you serve your customers says a lot about your values and who you are as a company. In a purpose-driven business, customer service is characterized by strong partnerships, transparent dialogue, and shared values.

Small Giants know that when you create great customer relationships, you get great business results. Take ARCOS (Automated Roster Call Out System), a company in Columbus, Ohio that provides emergency resource management software solutions for utilities companies. ARCOS organizes its culture around a set of core values that drive everything they do. Those values allow them to cultivate empowered, passionate employees who are relentless about customer success.

Culture has been a top priority at ARCOS for more than 15 years, and it’s working. Their values-driven approach to customer service has led to year-over-year revenue growth, high employee retention, and 100 percent client renewals.

What are the customer service best practices that set ARCOS apart? Let’s take a look.

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Call Out Crews With a Single Click

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Think about the time it takes to put together a crew for emergency work — supervisors poring through pages of employee lists, making call after call, sometimes over an hour or more.

For a long time, that was simply the cost of doing business for both Eugene (Oregon) Water and the Suffolk County (New York) Water Authority, but they found a way to expedite the procedure. In fact, with one piece of technology, it’s now as simple as the press of a button.

ARCOS Callout and Scheduling Suite made that a reality for Eugene and Suffolk by cataloging all work requirements, such as union worker lists and employee availability, and automated their callout procedure for instantaneous crew assignment.

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How will you Manage your Resources 10 Years from now?

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I strongly believe no technology will replace the noble profession of being a lineman. To me, technology is here to improve our existing processes, situational awareness and customer satisfaction.

For several years, utilities and contractors have been exploring the use of new technology like drones. For example, utilities have flown drones to inspect transmission lines and shooting video of insulators and cross arms without having to send a worker to climb a tower. But what other technological changes – such as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI) and robots – could improve utility performance in the years ahead? How will these technologies affect resource management? Will new, high-tech tools improve overall utility performance or just add to the complexity of resource management?

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No Longer Going it Alone: Outage Restoration Requires Relationships

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Utility workers restore power as a team. Getting the job done means sharing and managing information, resources, tools and more. Having a laser-beam focus on power restoration at the risk of putting local officials through an “information outage” might’ve been excusable in year’s past. But in today’s world of self-serve information, people at all levels outside a utility expect to know what’s happening in real time and how they can help.

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Hydro One crews complete restoration in record time for nearly 500,000 customers after significant damage caused by the April storm

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Hydro One employees worked tirelessly to restore power to approximately 500,000 customers affected by the major storm system that began on April 14. The system moved across Ontario from Windsor to the Quebec border and brought rain, ice accumulation of up to 30 mm, snow and significant wind gusts as strong as 100 km/hr in some areas. The efforts of employees from across the company resulted in a new record for Hydro One, restoring power in four days. This surpassed the previous six day restoration effort from the last, large scale March 2016 ice storm that earned Hydro One recognition from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

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