Transforming the Chaos of Storms into Planned Activities

utility damage after storm

In this podcast, I talk with Eric Charette, executive technical manager for Intergraph’s utilities and communications division, about how utility providers can turn severe weather and other unplanned events into planned activities and preparedness.

Laura Beth: Thank you for joining us for an Intergraph SG&I podcast. I’m your host Laura Beth Ezzell. In today’s podcast, we’re talking with Eric Charette who is based in our Huntsville, Alabama office. Eric, thank you for joining us.

Eric: My pleasure.

Laura Beth: Eric, it’s no secret that storms can cause chaos, especially for those working in the utility industry. There is help though and you are here to discuss how utility agencies can transform the chaos of storms into planned activities. Eric, first let’s just talk about what are some of the challenges utility companies face when storms roll through.

Eric: Major storms are very complex. The fact that storms don’t happen every day is a challenge. Major storm response involves deploying large teams of people that often have other areas of primary responsibility. The utility provider is challenged by keeping the skills of those employees sharp and ready for activation at any time. Then, depending on the magnitude of the storm, a small service center that normally staffs just a few people can turn into a major epicenter of activity with contractors, mutual assistance crews, and other resources that are needed to manage that storm. The management of those resources is a tremendous effort in and of itself – with everything from arranging meals and lodging to even clean clothes for some of the first responders. There are a lot of challenges beyond that, but these are just a few to mention.

Laura Beth: The process of handling storms can vary from region, state or even a district of the same utility. Why is that?

Eric: From my experience with storm management, when I worked at Wisconsin Public Service, I don’t think that I ever managed two storms that were alike. It’s often the characteristics of the storm that make them all unique. This might be the time of day that they hit. It might be the day of week or even the portion of service territory that they impact.  While the storm may vary, what needs to be consistent is how they are managed. Having proper documented information for storm response procedures that are routinely tested really helps to enable a utility provider to be prepared for the unique caveats that a particular storm might bring. Ensuring proper damage assessment is completed helps to prioritize storm areas and develop an overall strategy for utility storm recovery.

Laura Beth: What technology is available to help create a smarter workflow in handling storm power outage management?

Eric: Well, that’s a good question. The majority of utilities are still using manual processes for assessment. This might in paper forms or phone conversations. And it’s unlikely that the data collected is ever entered into any of the systems that are needed for dispatch or restoration. Technology is now widely available to help automate and streamline that entire process. It starts with the fact that almost every field worker carries a smart phone or has access to a tablet. Now, web-based solutions can help extend the visibility of storm management out to the entire enterprise, and those components are commonplace along with the addition of web services that can supply information from supporting systems like outage management or GIS. Though it’s possible to completely remove all of the paper from that process. And one of the ways to do that is to use Intergraph’s damage assessment automation software package.

Laura Beth: What do you consider some of the key features of this damage assessment tool that you can describe for us?

Eric: Intergraph’s damage assessment solution has several components that originate in the storm room with the planning or work assignment. And then that extends out to the field for data collection, and then circles back for analysis and systems integration. Work assignment includes assigning assessment areas to field crews so that those field crews can be tracked as long as the progress is being made by their assessment. Data collection is done on a tablet or smartphone based solution to help document the specifics of the damage that they find in the field. Data processing and systems integration are the server side intelligence that help make decisions on what to do with that data. Lastly, the visualization and analysis are web-based solutions for display of the information that’s collected in the field like damage reports along with outage and crew locations. And then the tools and reports to help determine the extent of the damage, the restoration strategy, and the overall duration that’s anticipated for storm restoration.

Laura Beth: Why is this solution key in today’s utility and communications needs and requirements?

Eric: Today’s utility customer expects access to real-time outage information and restoration times via things like online portals, social media, email, and text-based messaging. They’re really making critical decisions based on this information. Utilities are often leery about providing customers with that in-depth restoration time information for the risk of providing inaccurate restoration times that may cause additional customer frustration when compared with not communicating at all. It has only been until recently that utility providers have begun to place equal emphasis on the customer outage experience as they have traditionally placed on safe restoration processes. So, now utility providers can start to meet the demands for customer information by implementing solutions that support improving that customer outage experience. Things like damage assessment, or advanced restoration time, which leverages real-time information, and then, ultimately, the communication of that outage information in the form of a notification. By better understanding the damage to the grid, a utility can more accurately update those restoration times and communicate the information out to customers based on their preference management selections.

Laura Beth: What risk do companies incur by not having a solution like this?

Eric: Honestly, utilities have so much to gain by automating the damage assessment process. The automation of a predominately paper-driven process can help ensure that proper staffing levels are initialized and maintained. It also provides real-time feedback on the physical damage collected by the damage assessors, which are leveraging widely-used devices for data collection. The web dashboards enable storm managers in the war room to track the progress being made in damage assessment. And then with the integration with outage systems help to inform the dispatcher on the extent of the damage to be repaired prior to the restoration. It’s almost as if utilities cannot afford to not move forward by automating this process.

Laura Beth: Eric, is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our audience?

Eric: We are very excited about being on the forefront of aiding utilities as they work toward improving the overall customer outage experience. Being responsive to the industry and offering a damage assessment solution that can be implemented quickly is very timely. Developing a solution that can be implemented at any utility, not just those who already own Intergraph technology, allows us to offer a high value solution to the entire industry.

Laura Beth: Eric, this is great information and we appreciate all your insight today and telling us about damage assessment. We hope many utilities out there will take it in and start using this valuable tool. We appreciate your time and thank you for being our guest as well. You can learn more about our Intergraph SG&I Utilities and Communications solutions by visiting our website.

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Laura Beth Ezzell
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