Workforce Management Software Supports Utility's Response to Floods in Australia

April 6, 2011
After only a few months of experience with a newly installed mobile workforce management system, Powercor's fault management crews were faced with a major outage due to record flooding in Australia.

After only a few months of experience with a newly installed mobile workforce management system, Powercor's fault management crews were faced with a major outage due to record flooding in Australia. With thousands of customers off-supply due to storm damage, their workload nearly doubled practically overnight. Supported by the highly scalable Service Suite mobile scheduling and dispatch software from Ventyx, Powercor rose to the challenge—managing 60 percent more work orders while maintaining the same level of efficiency and job completion rates that have made the utility an award-winning champion of customer service.

Managing a Flood of Work Orders

In 2009, CitiPower and Powercor rolled out the Ventyx Service Suite solution to help schedule and dispatch crews tasked with replacing 1.1 million meters with remotely read interval "smart meters." The efficiencies achieved through this deployment led Powercor in October 2010 to expand the scope of Service Suite to encompass the Faults operations of Powercor. Included in this expanded scope was the integration of the utility's Outage Management System (OMS) and mobile software for approximately 300 fault crews tasked with restoring faults in the electricity distribution network.

In January 2011, only a few months after these crews went live on the new system, disaster struck. A giant lake of floodwater 55 miles (90 km) long washed over the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, the state's worst floods since records began 130 years ago. The floods covered 30 percent of Victoria, causing widespread outages across parts of Powercor's network. At one point as many as 43,000 customers were off-supply, along with the removal from service of a zone substation supplying 8,000 of those customers.

The vastness of the outage caused a flood of another kind, a major spike in work orders generated by OMS. Due to the widespread flood damage, work orders managed through the mobile software increased by 60 percent over the prior week. It was a challenge that no one at the utility had ever experienced—the type of natural disaster that may happen once in every 200 years.

With such a major spike in work order volume, there was concern over the crews' limited experience with the new mobile devices and software—only three months of prior use. Would the system scale quickly enough to manage the extra load? Would the crews have confidence in the new system to manage their schedules in the midst of a human tragedy and company crisis? As a result, management made the decision to identify the flood as an "escalation event," which meant that the crews could revert to the paper-based system they had used prior to Service Suite. Surprisingly, only some crew members chose that option.

"This flooding emergency was considered a true escalation event, for which crews are permitted under business rules to revert to paper if required. However, most crews chose to use Service Suite on their mobile devices and did not go back to paper," said Alan King, manager of Field Mobile Applications for CitiPower and Powercor's CHED Services.

Despite the significant increase in workload, the crews were able to achieve the same ratio of completed jobs to generated work orders that they had achieved during the prior "normal" week.

"The crews were able to handle the volume of work thrown at them," said King. "This was the first time they really 'stress tested' Service Suite, and it held up as expected and did the job they needed it to do."

Better Data and Real-Time Updates

Service Suite also aided the business during the flood by enabling the real-time capture of accurate data in the field. Previously, under the paper based system, timesheet data was captured in the field by the crews but not much more. The rest of the required information would be called in to the dispatcher, who would record it in the OMS—a manual process presenting opportunities for inaccurate and missing data.

With Service Suite, Powercor has the ability to better capture accurate data and receive real-time updates from the field via entry into their mobile devices while on the job. As a result, the new system allows dispatchers to spend a lot less time taking calls to "clean up" jobs after the fact and more time focusing on their dispatching duties. According to King, this capability played a significant role in responding to the flood-driven outages.

"I doubt we would have been able to as easily handle that work volume using paper," said King. "It's fair to say the new system played a major role in helping us better respond to this type of emergency. Our crews have never had anything like these floods in their lifetime."

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