Storm Management: Managing the Aftermath of a Storm Doesn't Have to Be a Disaster Itself

(Originally published in the September/October 2004 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness)

By James H. Morrow

The U.S. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center (CPC) forecasts a greater than normal 2004 North Atlantic Hurricane Season, calling for 12 to 15 tropical storms, with 6 to 8 becoming hurricanes, and 2 to 4 of these becoming major hurricanes. However, these forecasts represent only one type of storm, and in only one part of the country. In addition to the major tropical storms affecting utilities all along the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the United States, there are thousands of other storm events that occur every day across the country - and all it takes is one severe thunderstorm, perhaps accompanied by hail or strong winds; a routine winter snow or ice storm; or a sudden torrential downpour to wreak havoc with the power infrastructure that provides comfort, convenience and economy to an entire community. This is a real problem for utilities, and one for which, historically, there has not been a comprehensive solution.

Evolution of Storm Management
Traditionally, utilities have purchased or developed their own in-house outage management systems to deal with outages to their networks caused by storms. These applications typically focused on analyzing the outage events while doing little else to manage the resources required to restore the electrical system. Further, utility workforce management solutions tended to focus only on the simple, high-volume, short-cycle service orders that typically involve a single service technician, and occurring during normal business conditions.

Historically, there had been no way for a utility to manage its resources efficiently to restore its power infrastructure "back to normal" after a significant storm event had occurred. However, times have changed. In today's heightened alert environment the need to maintain power supplies at full capacity requires utilities to develop best practices and apply state-of-the-art technology solutions to recover from storm conditions as quickly and prudently as possible. Their customers demand it, and will voice their concerns to their local Public Service Commissioners if their needs are not adequately met. This is a fact of life that many CEOs have learned the hard way when lights don't come back on when promised.

According to William K. Pollock, president of services consulting firm Strategies For GrowthSM, "Until now, utilities have had to choose from a generic assortment of services management system (SMS) software offerings with little added to meet their special needs. The problem is that during storms, they have special requirements to restore service as soon as practical, and cannot rely on conventional software packages to effectively manage their storm situations."

However, with the introduction of state-of-the-art storm management software supported by wireless communications, utilities now have access to an industry-specific tool that enables them to adequately plan, prepare, train and manage their resources before, during and after significant storm events. Through the use of this technology, we have designed Service Hub for Utilities as the only automated mobile workforce management system that works in conjunction with outage management applications to completely automate a utility's capability to manage its resource requirements under either normal business conditions, storm conditions or other disaster-related situations (Figure 1).

The Four Phases of Storm Management
Storms don't just happen - they are generally forecasted and tracked for days. Even despite early warning, those utilities that have not planned in advance for such storms soon find themselves at a disadvantage in dealing with them when they finally do arrive. Even "minor" storms can cost a community a million dollars a day until full restoration of service. However, experience has shown that the more a utility is prepared for a storm, the easier it will be to accurately communicate the estimated time it will take to restore power to the public - and have the confidence that it can deliver on its commitments.

In a paper presented at the 2004 Distributech Conference in Orlando, Florida, Ulrich Held, Telcordia, suggested that "a storm event can be deconstructed into 4 major phases", each reflecting its own specific set of mission-critical tasks, as summarized and outlined below:

  • Phase 1: Strategic Planning: Prior to a Storm
  • Phase 2: Tactical Planning: Early Stages of the Storm
  • Phase 3: Operations: After the Storm Has Passed
  • Phase 4: Review & Analysis: After the Close-Out of a Storm Event
Phase 1: Strategic Planning: Prior to a Storm
According to Held, in the Strategic Planning phase, "a utility needs to be engaged in the design, development, implementation and benchmarking of its operations practices and procedures in anticipation of the coming storm season". This typically involves running storm simulations under alternative damage scenarios, identifying resource requirements, predicting the Estimated-Time-to-Restoration (ETR) and estimating the costs associated with each level of infrastructure damage.

By conducting these types of predictive analyses, Held believes that "a utility can better position itself to have the required resources and infrastructure already in place once a storm hits". However, in order to achieve these objectives, it is first necessary for utilities to develop storm-related business processes that are suitably matched to the storm conditions that prevail in their area, and adapt their applications to perform under both normal business conditions and any "unusual" storm circumstances. To address these issues, an effective software management solution must also incorporate a workflow engine that enables users to model their business processes and configure the system to function and support their needs under both normal business conditions and storm mode conditions (Figure 2). Once these business processes are modeled, it becomes easy to write scripts that configure the application to support the processes under each mode of operation. Each of these modes of operation must then be clearly defined and controlled by a system administrator.

Whenever a storm condition occurs and the storm management plan is invoked, the system automatically moves into a storm mode of operation that supports and enables the utility to effectively continue to deliver services. Once the storm mode of operation is configured, it can also be used as a planning tool to evaluate alternative scenarios, determine the levels of resources that will be associated with the estimated time for restoration, as well as the costs associated with each alternative.

However, during actual storm mode, operating conditions often require more resources than are normally available. In order to deal with these types of emergency situations, most utilities collaborate with other utilities to mutually plan for storms. Many enter into mutual aid agreements with neighboring utilities to facilitate getting support when storms hit. In addition, they often participate in a parts database that identifies the availability of spare parts to mutual aid partners for use during storms. Service Hub for Utilities supports all of these planning activities and is easily configured to incorporate mutual aid agreements, requests for aid; and spare parts and inventory available from utility pools.

Phase 2: Tactical Planning: Early Stages of the Storm
According to Held, the fundamental difference between Strategic Planning and Tactical Planning is that in the latter phase, the workload being modeled is real. The key operations activities that comprise the Tactical Planning phase include:

  • Damage Assessment
  • Foreign Resource Acquisition & Deployment
  • Continued Resource Modeling
Damage Assessment
As an operational safeguard, the storm mode of operation may only be invoked with the proper management authority. However, once invoked, normal operations are set aside in the affected areas, and dispatchers, available native crews, mutual aid crews, subcontractors and other resources are already identified and configured in the resource database with resources immediately assigned to the affected area(s). All scheduling and dispatching of crews are also driven by storm-based business rules configured in the application.

As soon as outages are reported, an advanced scheduling module, working in conjunction with the utility's native outage management system, can be used to dispatch scouts and damage assessment teams to the most severely affected locations. Once onsite, they immediately can assess network damage, and report information back wirelessly in real-time using laptop computers, tablets and PDAs equipped with storm-formatted screens. These screens facilitate rapid and accurate assessments of actual conditions (i.e., wire down, tree down, transformer damaged, etc.).

This information is then fed back to the system for classification into work orders. Managers, working with real-time information, can immediately assess the extent of damage and begin to optimally dispatch damage repair crews to restore the facilities that affect the largest number of customers. Additionally, the system provides detailed information that recommends the best blend of native, subcontractor, and mutual aid resources to get the job done.

Foreign Resource Acquisition & Deployment
Once the full extent of the storm damage becomes known, Held cites the key activities that need to be performed as:

  • Request resources from multiple sources,
  • Accept a specific number of outside resources,
  • Assimilate the outside resources into a common resource base,
  • Track the use/utilization of outside resources,
  • Track the running costs of outside resources, and
  • Release outside resources at the appropriate time.
Requesting the proper mix of subcontractor and mutual aid resources can be as easy as selecting from a "pick list" of the companies to be contacted. Preformatted templates identifying the quantity of crews and types of equipment needed allow a request to be completed and e-mailed to a mutual aid partner quickly. As the subcontractor and mutual aid resources arrive, they are directed to staging areas where they are provided with wireless mobile computing devices and a native field service technician who is familiar with the area.

Upon logging into the system and meeting all security requirements, the arriving crews can immediately start receiving work orders that are optimally matched to specific geographic locations, skill sets and parts availability, etc. Once in the field, the crews can update job status, parts, tools and equipment requirements in real time through the system's wireless communications capability - information that is crucial for making decisions to send a technician or crew to a specific job site. Since Service Hub is configured to automatically update available resources, it can provide utility management with the necessary information for making critical decisions early in their storm management activities.

Continued Resource Modeling
The ability to continuously model the prevailing workload against available resources is an essential requirement for an effective restoration plan and process. One of the most important features of the application should be its ability to provide dispatchers with the capability to view the prevailing workload based on incoming damage assessment information and output directly from an outage management application (Figure 3).

Service Hub provides the option to either manually or automatically balance needs against resource availability. It also tracks and measures crew calendars, and time to complete work, etc. As capacity to deliver work is consumed, the screens adjust accordingly so that dispatchers do not inadvertently set expectations for work completion that cannot be met.

Phase 3: Operations: After the Storm Has Passed
The Operations phase represents a logical extension of the Tactical Planning process, and occurs within the same period of time. Two of the key activities associated with the Operations phase include:

  • Work Order Management
  • Reports & Communications
Work Order Management
Once the required work has been identified (via the damage assessment process) it is then necessary to systematically allocate the work to the available resources. Dispatchers are afforded the flexibility of setting the advanced scheduling module to automatically manage and schedule resources for lower priority orders (i.e., those that typically affect a single premise, but number in the thousands), thus freeing themselves to concentrate on those outages with higher priorities that affect hundreds - or thousands - of customers. At the end of each day, unworked orders come back to the system for reschedule and assignment. This not only provides dispatchers with critical information needed to properly manage resource needs, but also provides management with a daily summary of all resources used (i.e., people, equipment and parts, etc.) and their associated costs (Figure 4).

Reports and Communications
Service Hub for Utilities includes a service intelligence module and data mart that provides a comprehensive set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that can be set to monitor any parameters of the storm situation (Figure 5). For example, the KPIs can be pre-set to "flag" when specific limits, or parameters, are breached so that other required actions may be automatically triggered. These triggered actions may be in the form of an e-mail, printed page or telephone call with recorded message, etc., and can also be used to provide ETR forecasts to government agencies, the general public and the media.

The application provides management with real-time information throughout the storm event - from early damage assessment, to peak resource deployment, to wind down. Real-time assessment of continuing resource needs also enables management to return mutual aid resources to their home bases earlier, thus minimizing costs without adversely affecting restoration times, etc. At the end of each shift, the line item costs associated with restoring service can be summarized and presented to management for review and approval. Additionally, the information stored in the data mart can be used to conduct post-mortem analyses so that planning for future storm management can be improved.

Phase 4: Review & Analysis: After the Close-Out of a Storm Event
One of the benefits of Service Hub for Utilities is that it can also provide resource scheduling and dispatch for all of the complex post-storm work that often spans hours, days and weeks - and that may require the coordination of several additional multi-skilled crews and subcontractors. For example, final cleanup work would not be required until all above-ground work has been completed, and circuits have been tested and returned to service.

Once the system has finally been restored and the storm condition no longer exists, management can re-invoke the normal operation mode. In this case, the system will revert back to the business processes and rules that govern the routine scheduling and dispatch of the field organization.

Summary and Conclusion - An Effective Storm Management Solution
Supplying safe, economical and reliable electric energy under normal operating conditions is a complex challenge. However, when storms are involved, the complexity increases 100-fold, regardless of whether the utility supports a small rural community or a major metropolitan area. As such, ViryaNet believes that the most successful utilities will be those that can leverage web and wireless technology to improve operational efficiency across the continuum of their mission-critical work areas - under both normal and storm conditions.

ViryaNet Service Hub for Utilities is a web-architected automated workforce management system that utilizes wireless communications to support the needs of the field service organization under both normal business conditions and special storm circumstances. It meets and exceeds the needs of utilities that are most at risk from winter and summer storms by providing the capability to effectively manage their field service resources, and it provides management with the real-time reporting capabilities required to manage communications with the appropriate public, media and governing agencies by setting accurate - and timely - expectations for the restoration of service.

Today, we offer Service Hub for Utilities as the only industry-specific application that provides the tools and capabilities needed for utilities to effectively manage their field service organizations during normal business conditions - and then, with the click of a mouse, automatically convert to a storm-configured application that fully supports their storm management plan.


James H. Morrow is vice president of Americas Utility Sales at ViryaNet, the Southborough, Massachusetts-based provider of software solutions that improve the quality and efficiency of an organization's service operations. ViryaNet's flagship product - the award-winning ViryaNet Service Hub - helps companies improve workforce scheduling, dispatching, and activity reporting; customer contract and entitlement automation; and asset, logistics and repairs management. Jim may be reached at 770-777-8271 or via e-mail at jim.morrow@viryanet.com. ViryaNet's website is accessible at www.viryanet.com.


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