Feature Story

Mobility & The Energy Sector: Radicalizing Field Service

by Kerry Doyle

Electric utilities are modernizing the electric grid to meet the demands of an increasingly digital society. In the same way, mobile solutions are helping field service personnel respond to catastrophic storm events in ways that were unforeseen a few short years ago.

Increasingly, technicians are using a range of logistical and emergency apps via their mobile devices to perform damage assessment, access online training and respond to customer needs once a storm occurs.

"Field workers can get immediate notifications as to the type of emergency," according to Jim Menton, Utility Industry Principal at ClickSoftware, the global field service software company working directly with regional U.S. utilities on mobile solutions.

#85: Mobility And Collaboration: In The Energy Sector Radicalizing Field Service by The Network Podcast

"Apps exist that can give technicians all the incident data they need: The GPS location, voice-activated turn-by-turn instructions and required materials," he says. "It's a full, functional environment for the mobile worker to expedite response and be more efficient overall."

For example, relatively new mobile capabilities can eliminate the protracted staging process required for crew assignment when rapid response is critical. Moreover, the collaborative potential for all mobile-based workers means that accurate service restoration data is shared quickly. As electric utilities recognize the need for efficiency and minimizing outage times, they're also feeling the impact on their bottom line.

For utility companies across the country, major storm preparedness and swift response have been key motivators for broadening and enhancing regional mutual aid. From Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the most recent experience with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the scope and intensity of these storms means that utilities must safely and promptly restore power to greater numbers of customers.

The electric industry's mutual assistance network leverages the strength, skills, and capacity of neighboring utilities to provide fast and efficient power restoration. Because of its unique structure, the network is both flexible and voluntary, empowering utilities to respond quickly to the unpredictability of weather.

It also recognizes that any one utility may be limited in its ability to provide resources and disaster preparedness/recovery at a given point in time.

To accomplish power restoration goals on a regional level, the industry created Regional Mutual Aid Groups (RMAGs) to ensure a comprehensive response to regional storm events. This ad hoc agreement commits neighboring utilities to share resources when a storm event occurs and exists throughout the recovery process.

An RMAG agreement enables electric companies to maintain crews and subcontractors borrowed from other local utilities for as long as necessary. All this encompasses the mutual aid arrangement between electric utilities and the steady state as it exists today. It illustrates how a few regional companies can collaborate on a relatively small-scale, localized weather event.

However, it's also become clear that the size, force and range of storms have increased globally. To that end, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), an association organized in 1933 and representing all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, has recognized the need to scale regional preparedness and response to achieve a broad, all-encompassing national focus.

The association has implemented the National Response Event (NRE) process. An industry-wide NRE results from a natural or man-made event that causes widespread power outages impacting a significant population or several regions across the U.S. and requires utility crews from multiple RMAGs.

There's one complication in this strategy: How do you connect all of the utilities, whereby you have access and visibility into all of their available resources, from line crews including technicians in the field to supervisors and leads? How can an inpidual host utility gain access to all of those assets in real time? Is there a single mechanism that can arrange and make available regional resources pending a catastrophic event?

A mobile-based solution accessible to all participating utilities may provide an answer. By adopting a single, nationally standardized Application Programming Interface (API), host utilities impacted by severe weather could identify in real-time all utility, mutual aid and contractor crews regardless of location. Moreover, the "common language" shared by all utilities would enable efficient communication.

All crew on-boarding, provisioning and dispatching from outside a "home utility" could occur through technicians' mobile devices. Such a solution provides regional and national utilities with an enhanced mutual aid environment that's seamless, collaborative and timely. Agreement on a standard API protocol would enable a mobile solutions manufacturer to incorporate all industry-based resources within a solution easily accessible to the host utility where a storm event is occurring.

Mutual aid workers could travel to a damaged location and immediately start seeing restoration orders on their mobile device. Not only would this ensure that the right technicians with the correct equipment are being dispatched to a location,  it  would also simplify and streamline the process of making sure that line workers with the right certifications are performing the work. Moreover, personnel that required training could quickly access procedural videos online. This scenario describes the trend toward increased collaboration and resource sharing in the future.

Utility customers benefit from shorter outreach times and faster restoration from these catastrophic events.

Standardization would not only improve resource sharing during emergency conditions. It would also enable utilities to collaborate on best practices and technologies to improve emergency preparedness and response.

In fact, the value of collaboration is becoming increasingly important across a number of different sectors. Social media, online video and mobility are simply the components of an emerging trend that is fast becoming the norm. As the cohesion between electric utilities strengthens nationwide, it also presents a broad opportunity for the public as well as state and governmental agencies.

Once a standard API is agreed upon by members of the EEI, it will dramatically change the potential for recovery operations. Similar to Web 2.0, a comparable platform would enable customers to engage with their utility provider. They could assist in reporting outages via their mobile devices, providing photos of damaged power lines, for example, and offering logistics and location information.

Other constituents, such as politicians and regulators concerned about restoration efforts, could gain important visibility into local recovery activities. They could see the damage, view assessments and calculate repair costs. Such collaboration and transparency has the potential to dramatically change how electric utilities operate when it comes to catastrophic events related to weather.

Increased mobility with dynamic applications provides utilities and field workers with a unique strategy that offers numerous benefits to both industry insiders and their customers. "A CEOs worst nightmare?" says Menton. "A photo on the front page of a major news source with the headline: "Local Utility Performs Miserably After Storm." Then, they're sued for tens of millions of dollars. Not only will the CEO be embarrassed, but financially impacted."


Such outcomes are exactly what utility leaders and industry executives are eager to avoid.


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