Effective Mutual Assistance Communications for Electric Utilities

Mutual Assistance Communications

Managing mutual assistance communications is a challenge. It involves a high level of coordination to organize, deploy, and track external resources – yet we’re not always well versed in terms of the best way to manage outside resources because the need to do so occurs very infrequently (with any luck, that is). This is why mutual assistance planning is so crucial.

But developing the plan is only one piece of the puzzle. Beyond that, the key parts of the plan need to be effectively communicated to the outside personnel. Yes, this seems like an incredibly obvious statement, but it’s amazing how often this “obvious” element is overlooked.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Ever take a vacation to a foreign country where they don’t speak your language, they drive on the wrong side of the road, and you came without a guidebook, map, GPS, Google Maps – or a PLAN?

With enough time and money, such a sensory-deprivation approach to cultural discovery might be a thrilling experience. Sure, you might stumble around a bit trying to find your hotel. Or you might wind up in that part of a city or country where no foreigner can successfully negotiate.

OK, it’s an extreme example. But here’s the point: when you bring foreign crews in to help with weeks-long restorations, they could start out pretty well disoriented if you don’t equip them with enough information when they finally arrive – or before. And if you’re slow in getting them situated, you’ll be losing valuable time and money. Your CFO won’t be happy, your shareholders won’t be happy, and the media, the politicians and the regulators will have a field day telling the world about how your lack of preparation left your customers sweating or freezing in the dark.

Mutual assistance is hardly a new concept, one that should be fairly well understood by now. However, bringing in mutual assistance is hardly a routine practice – and practice is a prerequisite to process improvement.

So let’s take a closer look at some ways to get foreign crews up and running as fast as possible.

Plan Ahead

Specifically define, step-by-step, your process for mutual assistance communications and make sure it’s spelled out in detail in your restoration plan. Identify well in advance the basics of what you need to do and what all visiting personnel need to know:

  • Document your safety protocols and requirements. Your own people know them, but crews from a couple of states away may have their own ideas about safe practice. Have laminated cards, leaflets, emails, workplace posters ready to go, with safety checklists in each work package. No one ever regretted communicating about safety too much.
  • Establish trigger points, your pre-determined decision criteria for calling in mutual assistance crews, to improve your chances that they are not called in too soon or too late.
  • Develop incident level staffing charts to ensure that you have enough of your own folks available to manage all the outside personnel coming in.
  • Locate and arrange for staging areas in advance. It’s best to have several prospective staging areas identified throughout your territory so you can readily pick those you’ll need when the time comes. Have them set up and ready to go when the cavalry arrives.
  • Document your outside resource check–in process in your restoration plan.
  • Ensure that your process to assemble and distribute work packages is ready to go.
  • Make sure your landline, cell phone and email contact lists are always up-to-date.
  • Document the process for outside personnel to request materials and supplies.

Nuts and Bolts of Mutual Assistance Communications

When you’ve pulled the trigger and decided to call the mutual assistance personnel in, it’s time to start communicating with them. This is where all your planning and preparation will either succeed or fail. If you have thought through your plan and process, you should have a good deal of “canned” information available to “publish” already. But in addition, visiting personnel need some added, up-to-date specifics:

  • First, last and always, safety briefings and periodic safety updates.
  • Advice on how to navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods, bridge tolls, local traffic laws, and unique travel conditions (low bridges, etc.).
  • Details on food and lodging.
  • How to get work assignments and updated information.
  • How to obtain materials, supplies and fuel.
  • How to get reimbursed for expenses, etc.
  • Where to find the latest information on the progress of restoration (press releases, social media updates, etc.).

A Few Best Practices

Based on a review of various Regional Mutual Assistance Group (RMAG) policies and procedures, Edison Electric Institute case studies, and our own client projects, here are some best practices for optimizing the mutual assistance communication process.

  • Get the outside resources to work as soon as they’re available to work. Make sure your work packages are ready to go. Provide all the crucial information the crews need to work safely and efficiently.
  • Provide safety checklists, schedules, a contact list, important phone numbers, relevant procedures, protocols, and more. In other words, everything you needed to know the last time you went to help someone else.
  • Think strategically about how you distribute work to outside personnel. Since they are not familiar with the territory, assign them to work on larger jobs in one location rather than having them go from little job to little job all day long. This maximizes their efficiency and requires less local oversight.
  • Provide a single point of contact to enable streamlined two-way communications and ensure that they provide regular updates about job status.
  • Make sure your OMS provides accurate, frequently updated information in-synch with the overall mutual assistance process. Bad OMS information will screw up even your best efforts to coordinate resources.
  • Conduct exercises and drills regularly to help your people learn to coordinate and manage mutual assistance communications, personnel, and protocols. Remember, drills are a great way to deepen your bench, so make sure your reserve teams get to play.

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