One of the most important things – if not the most important thing – electric utilities can do to minimize restoration times is to find ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their lineman scheduling and dispatching processes. Without efficiencies in these areas, restoration times can be expected to be higher, time and money will be wasted, and managers will be unable to effectively plan and strategize because they will not have a global view of what is happening.
Why Lineman Scheduling is Easier Said Than Done
Scheduling and dispatching linemen is usually a straightforward endeavor during normal business operations, or “blue sky” days. But things can quickly go awry when a sudden storm pounds the service territory and employees get called in en masse for emergency storm duty. The root cause of the chaos that can ensue is that major storm events are infrequent and are occasionally unexpected, so utilities can sometimes get caught with their proverbial pants down. Sure, you’re going to be ready for 9 out of 10 summer storms, but sooner or later your system will get walloped by a storm whose magnitude substantially exceeds expectations.
The infrequent and occasionally unpredictable nature of major weather events – even with solid weather prediction models – means that they cannot always be scheduled for in advance. So when a large-scale event does happen, it’s often a race to get all hands on deck…and then some. This sudden influx of workers can be overwhelming unless utilities give some thought in advance (i.e., while they are developing emergency plans and protocols) to how this massive workforce wave can be dispatched to various sites in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Another reason why it’s tough to optimize utility lineman scheduling and dispatching processes 100% of the time is that oftentimes there are shortcomings in the technologies that are utilized for determining the location of resources and order of callout. This hinders the ability to make efficient decisions around scheduling, dispatching and restoration.
Top-4 Scheduling and Dispatching Best Practices
First, the most efficient utilities develop and utilize lineman scheduling and dispatching requirements that are categorized / tiered by event type (timing, magnitude, and nature of the event), and these requirements are pre-planned and documented. In other words, their emergency plans designate, for each tier, the needs and methods for securing the required resources.
Second, some of the most efficient utilities create crew structures based on the most common job types. For example, one type of structure might encompass larger crews handling infrastructure expansion, whereas another type might encompass a one-man crew that troubleshoots or handles customer appointments. This helps ensure that the right crews are dispatched to the right kinds of jobs, which should in theory help improve both efficiency and effectiveness.
Third, the utilities that are most effective and efficient in terms of scheduling and dispatching utilize state-of-the-art technology. There are many examples, but a couple of the most effective include:
- Cloud-based software that automatically tracks the status of linemen, and launches programmable callouts to bring linemen together in crews when needed.
- A work management system to define work, schedule hours, and track progress. This often interfaces with, and utilizes data from, an outage reporting system and a geographic information system (GIS). Some of the most advanced systems even capture and analyze incoming outage calls to determine the number of resources needed, and trigger the callout system to summon the required number of workers.
Finally, reporting, reporting, reporting. What do I mean by this? Well, they say it’s impossible to improve what can’t be measured. And I agree. That is why it is critical to develop and report on operational metrics to help monitor response times and availability of linemen, as well as callout system metrics. Metrics can be developed to measure success across a number of areas including turn-around time, average outage duration per customer, turnout ratio on callout, and maintenance work efficiency. These metrics can be measured by virtue of annual targets that supervisors and linemen must meet as part of their annual goals.
Effective and efficient emergency restoration is all about efficient crew utilization – period. When outages happen, the quicker crews can be dispatched to the site, the faster power will be restored. Due to the relative unpredictability of storms, coupled with the pervasiveness of inefficient technology, this is often easier said than done.
But the good news is that there are some “low hanging fruit” methods of boosting the level of efficiency around these processes. These include categorizing lineman scheduling and dispatching requirements based on event type, creating several crew structures specific to each of the most common job types, leveraging state-of-the-art technology, and defining, measuring and reporting on relevant operational metrics.