IT Aids Florida Utility Workers

But outage management applications may fall short with guest repair crews

Electric utilities in Florida have been able to leverage IT to help them respond to the widespread power outages caused by the four hurricanes that have hammered the state over the past six weeks. But limitations in some of the systems are making it hard to fully automate the process of coordinating the repair work.

For instance, most power companies in the Southeast have installed new outage management systems since 2000 to help them identify the equipment that's causing a specific power disruption and dispatch work crews to the scene, said Rick Nicholson, an analyst at Meta Group Inc.

But when a hurricane hits, the companies often recruit thousands of repair workers from across the U.S. and Canada for assistance. Because those workers rarely have mobile devices that are compatible with a utility's outage management system, electronic work orders typically can't be dispatched to them, Nicholson said.

"That's a problem, and I'm not aware of any utilities that have adequately solved this," said Nicholson. In most cases, power companies have dispatchers call guest employees on cell phones to give them their work orders, he said.

Dennis Klinger, CIO at Florida Power & Light Co., said the Juno Beach-based utility gives radio systems or cell phones to transient repairmen if they don't have mobile devices that will work with its outage management system.

"Sometimes their technology is compatible with us, sometimes not," Klinger said. He added that if cellular communications have been disrupted in a particular area, guest workers fill out paper-based work orders and return them to temporary "staging sites" set up by FP&L.

In the aftermath of a major storm like Hurricane Jeanne, the latest to plow across Florida, "our process of getting information to the field changes dramatically," said Becky Harrison, director of distribution services at Progress Energy Inc.'s operations in North Carolina and Florida. "We know that they're not going to be able to get orders electronically in a storm like this."

Florida Power & Light linemen work to restore electricity in Boynton Beach.
1pixclear.gif

Florida Power & Light linemen work to restore electricity in Boynton Beach.

Image Credit: Newscom
1pixclear.gif

After Jeanne moved out of Florida, Raleigh, N.C.-based Progress Energy assigned "feeder coordinators" -- typically, local repairmen -- to oversee particular areas and dispatch work orders to visiting crews, using information from its outage management system, Harrison said.

Tracking Customers

The system that the company uses in Florida is driven by an Oracle database, and Harrison said it has been "extremely valuable" for identifying customers who lost power and tallying the percentage of customers who have had their electricity restored. About 722,000 of Progress Energy's Florida customers lost power as a result of Jeanne, but the utility expected to have all of them back online by the end of the day this past Friday.

Outage management systems have other strengths as well, Harrison said. For instance, Progress Energy can use its system to determine an estimated time of repair for a particular area. It then can provide callers to customer service centers with an automated response telling them when power should be restored.

"One of the things we've found very critical in storms is that it's just as important to keep customers informed about restorations as it is about making the restorations themselves," Harrison said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon