The Emergence of Automated Crew Callout Scheduling in the Utility Industry
ID 91970431 © Kittisak Jaitieng | Dreamstime.com
- January 16, 2019
- 494 views
Until the dawn of the Digital Age, crew scheduling was an arduous, time consuming process often conducted under stress during outage events with pencil and paper, sticky notes, whiteboards and magnets, or, unshareable Excel spreadsheets. Staffing lists were static in nature, with no interconnectivity or field communications, and were limited to names, contact information, and possibly some brief notations on employee shift preferences.
According to market surveys, many utilities still function on these old-world methods of field workforce management. Reluctance to automate comes from many sources, including lack of IT resources, unfamiliarity with automation software, lack of support at managerial or government levels, belief that the software is too expensive or too difficult to configure and maintain.
In the last few years, crew scheduling automation software tools have proliferated across many sectors. A quick Google search on those keywords brings up dozens of software tools designed to fill various business niches. However, due to the complex nature of its unique logistical, business, and regulatory environment, few software vendors have dived into the utility sector.
Key differentiators that make callout automation software useful specifically to electric, gas, and water utilities include tying software capabilities directly to frequently-changing field operations during outage events. Centralized, cloud-based, mobile automated solutions that provide virtually 100% uptime have enabled utilities to reduce callout duration by up to 90%, allowing utilities to reduce CAIDI and SAIDI outage duration scores significantly while increasing customer satisfaction levels.
Utilities are looking for scheduling software that enables duty supervisors and dispatchers to respond quickly – with skill- and location-specific (“proximity-based”) field staff, contractors, and mutual aid teams - to events. Technology has enabled utilities to achieve high crew turnout levels that trigger faster power restoration.
Utilities also require software that provides the ability to generate internal management reports and provide district management teams with historical records for management business intelligence and performance reviews while satisfying regulatory reporting requirements.
Add in the ability of the software to provide time-critical information for media, civil authorities, and first responders, and it becomes apparent why the utility sector demands functionality provided by few if any of the generic automated scheduling tools.
Other automated scheduling features desirable to utilities include the ability to verify the availability of resources and modify schedules on the fly. Also, the ability to automatically follow union bargaining unit rules while adhering to union callout agreements allows utilities to reduce employee grievances regarding “fair and equitable” overtime issues and the costs associated with investigating those complaints.
Streamlining the callout process through automation opens up the ability for utilities to connect previously segregated work management and resource management databases with crew callout systems. When these disparate, backend “island databases” are integrated with their GIS, outage management systems and Google Maps, visibility and situational awareness into real-time conditions are available. Teams are connected and able to share field-to-office communications, charts, graphs, and other critical information. Operations move to a new level of efficiency and safety, with significant documented operational cost savings.
With these features now standard and interconnected in select utility scheduling automation packages, utilities are now light years ahead in communication efficiency and field productivity. Interestingly, the resistance by certain utilities to implement automation systems turns out to be the opposite of the very benefits that companies have reported when they adopted the new technologies. Ease of use, decreased costs, increased operational efficiencies and more effective maintenance procedures have been demonstrated with the new automated, integrated software platforms.
The number of utilities implementing automated scheduling and crew callout software continues to increase. Kansas City Light and Power, Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corporation, and Lee County Electric Cooperative in Florida have all seen significant benefits after implementing automated scheduling software platforms. As 2019 unfolds, it is expected that more utilities will try out and decide to implement these intelligent tools.