Workforce automation helps utilities avoid operational headaches

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Utilities work hard during storms. No one who has looked out the window and seen line workers climbing poles in snow and sleet would argue that point.

But what’s not seen is the effort it takes just to gather the workers during a power outage, especially for small utilities.

Chances are a line crew supervisor back at the control center is sorting through Excel spreadsheets, some with numbers for foremen, others for apprentices or journeymen. Then it’s necessary to dial number after number, trying to reach the right mix of overtime workers to restore power. 

If all employees answered their phones right away, it wouldn’t be so bad. But of course, they do not, and supervisors leave voice messages, a lot of voice messages. Even those who are immediately reached do not all accept the job, so the supervisor typically will keep ticking down through the list in a process that can take hours.

“When you are going through a list of 100 people, it takes a good amount of time,” said Eric Pickles, chief electric system operator at public power utility Lakeland Electric. “They may have a home phone, a cell phone, a pager.”

Why isn’t this all done well in advance of the storm? Not every natural disaster announces that it’s coming. Utilities have plenty of prep time for hurricanes. But severe thunderstorms and sheets of rain occur suddenly in places like Lakeland, Florida, a city of about 100,000 people midway between Tampa and Orlando.

We live in an era of grid modernization. Isn’t there a better option for small utilities than making manual phone calls?

It turns out sophisticated, automated callout systems offer up the perfect solution for this vexing challenge facing utilities. But small utilities tend to shy away from exploring the products, thinking they are complex and costly.

A pioneer in the use of automation, Lakeland discovered that’s not the case when more than a decade ago it began using ARCOS Callout and Scheduling solutions. The system is designed to improve utility restoration times by using automation to gather crews.

The program does more than just make the phone calls. It organizes employee lists so that the utility can reach the right person at the right time and send them to the right place.

When an outage occurs, or some other event requiring overtime workers, the control center supervisor submits how many employees are needed and what kind. The software finds the workers in its database, sifting for specific skills. Some workers may be on more than one list, or have several phone numbers associated with their names. The ARCOS system calls all of an employee’s numbers at once, in an effort to reach them.

If the employee does not immediately respond, the system identifies and calls the next worker on the list, making its way through the options in minutes, not hours. A worker signals via the phone system if they can come into work. Lakeland supervisors never need to get on the phone.

“After five minutes or so, we’ll go back in and look and see” who has accepted and if the program is still calling. “Depending on how big the crew is, it may take 10 minutes,” Pickles said.

Lakeland can restore power more quickly because it can get its crews out faster with the caller automation program.

It’s not surprising that the utility is happy with the program. Not only has it improved Lakeland’s restoration time, but it allows system operators to focus on their core work rather than spend time on the phone, Pickles said.

“If anybody wanted to take ARCOS away, they’d get a lot of push back. It’s worked too well for us. It’s cut down on the length of time it takes us to get help out,” Pickles said.

For Lakeland, the ARCOS system comes in handy during storms. But that’s not the only time automated calling and scheduling software can benefit a utility.

Software helps Missouri utility keep operations running smoothly

City Utilities of Springfield (CU), a public power utility that serves 111,000 customers in southwest Missouri, relies on the software to keep operations running smoothly at its power plants. The utility started using the ARCOS system in early 2017 to manage 90 union workers.

“We don’t use it specifically for storms. We use it mainly for overtime staffing to fill a shift,” said David Nelson, CU supervisor of power generation.

For example, a coal train may arrive in the middle of the night, and the utility will need workers to come in and unload the fuel.

“We know a round-about time when the train will come in. The website may say 2 a.m. But it may be an hour earlier or three hours later. So we don’t preschedule overtime and have people stay onsite,” he said.

Once the train arrives, it usually takes about an hour to park, so the utility uses that time to gather a crew.

Before the ARCOS system was installed, it would take up to 1 and ½ hours to call the crew members in. With the automated system, “it’s a matter of minutes,” he said.

The shift supervisor sets the ARCOS system up, tells it what classification of worker(s) they need, and “off it goes,” Nelson said. As the system makes its calls, the supervisor is free to go about doing other work.

In addition to responding to coal trains, CU uses the system when a mechanical emergency occurs at a plant after hours.

Prior to installing the ARCOS software, CU would manage worker phone numbers and other data on Excel spreadsheets. The utility and union regularly updated the sheets manually, printed them out and posted them around the plant site. The sheets tracked worker hours because the person who worked the least amount of hours was the first called.

“So for example, if someone worked this weekend, we’d have to add it to the spreadsheet,” Nelson said. “Now we can do it at any work station or our smart phone.”

Nelson said he especially likes the ease of using the ARCOS mobile app. “You can see where you are on the list, and if you are going to be called this weekend. You can accept or decline overtime on your phone,” he said.

When workers receive a call from the ARCOS software, they must enter an  identification code to confirm that the system reached the right person. The automated system describes the job and tells the worker to press specific numbers to accept or reject the job.

The system orders the calls based on the specific configuration of workers needed. So, for example, if a boiler feed pump needs repair, CU will need an electrician to arrive before a master mechanic. So, the ARCOS system will call and secure an electrician before it begins calling the master mechanics.

Codes exist in the system to designate who is on vacation, jury duty, or sick leave, etc. The system will not call them – unless the worker specifies that they would like to be called.

“It’s a lot faster than when we were doing it manually,” Nelson said. It is “effective and it’s getting people on site when we need them.”

For more information about ARCOS and its product offerings, visit the company’s website.