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Speed, satisfaction and safety

Bill Perry's picture
Managing Partner MARCH 24 Media LLC

Bill Perry is the managing partner of MARCH 24 Media LLC, a New York-based PR firm. He has written about the utility industry for nearly 15 years, enthusiastically writing about the technology,...

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  • Mar 22, 2012

IF A TRANSFORMER BLOWS OR AN AUTO ACCIDENT BRINGS down a pole, a callout is what gets crews to the scene of the outage. But my colleagues at Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) haven't picked up their phones to launch a callout in five years. That hasn't damaged our relationship with our customer-members. And it hasn't hurt SMECO's power restoration work, either. That's because we make after-hours emergency calls with software.

Founded in 1937 as the Southern Maryland Tri-County Cooperative Association, SMECO today is one of the 10 largest electric co-ops in the nation. SMECO provides electric service to approximately 150,000 customers in a 1,250-square-mile area, just 25 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. The co-op serves the southern portion of Prince George's County, all of Charles and St. Mary's counties, and all but the northern tip of Calvert County.

The shift in the way SMECO handles callouts came in 2004, after we centralized our operations department to better serve customer-members across Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. As part of streamlining operations, SMECO combined three operating regions that were conducting callouts separately.

Consolidation sheds light on callout
The consolidation led us to create distribution system operators (DSOs) who would handle callouts for our entire service area as part of one group. Once we brought our operations department and transmission system operations teams together, we discovered just how time-consuming making callouts could be. On one occasion a callout to find seven available workers for restoration took more than one hour.

We learned that callouts were complicated. SMECO doesn't rely on seniority to pick first responders or line crews when emergencies strike. Instead, we employ a call rotation. Service crews are paired, so a serviceman and helper work as a team, which SMECO calls out as a team. If one of the team's members can't accept a callout, a time-strapped DSO would have to carefully scan a complex roster and set of rules to find the person entitled to get the next call. Mistakes were made. And that led to grievances. In fact, SMECO supervisors were spending a lot of time researching complaints about bad callouts, which had become a weekly occurrence.

Management, line personnel, and, of course, customer-members had no idea how complicated or timeconsuming the callout process was. The DSOs spent so much time making calls that they couldn't accomplish much else until a callout was filled. Ultimately, the callout process was costing SMECO and the businesses we serve because the power wasn't being restored as fast as it could be.

Looking for a better way
By 2005, we began looking for ways to simplify and speed up the callout process. As a first step, we brought together our foremen, regional managers and union personnel to iron out the details of what we wanted. Everyone agreed that they should choose an automated system that would conform to the existing callout process. Some doubted whether any technology could mimic SMECO's sometimes complex requirements.

In 2006, SMECO installed an Internet-based automated callout and resource management system. The software uses a set of algorithms to call crews in the order that our work agreements dictate. Because the system applies logic to the way it places calls, the automated callouts mirror SMECO's work agreements.

Integrated approach takes shape
After implementing the system, SMECO integrated the callout software with a mobile computer-aided dispatch system. The mobile dispatch system is what DSOs now use to assign crews to a job. If the dispatch system shows that a crew isn't available, then the DSOs launch a callout.

The automated callout system stores information on the makeup and skills of SMECO's service crews and crew availability, along with data on more than 150 other employees who may need to be called in a crisis situation.

Every morning, the callout system and mobile dispatch system communicate and upload available crews for DSOs and supervisors to see. The integration enables SMECO to generate a deployment plan for the day. We have made the automated callout system our system of record because the software tracks which crew members are available in real-time. If a crew is unavailable, then the automated callout software will not send the crew's details to the mobile dispatch system.

When an after-hours emergency occurs, DSOs tap the callout system and the software launches phone calls to all available crews needed. The system reports on each crew member's status from acceptance to completion of work.

Improving satisfaction, speed, safety
Since we automated our callout and mobile dispatch systems, assembling the utility's 16 service crews and 26 line crews for an after-hours emergency takes minutes.

Before implementing these systems, SMECO's callout records show that a manual callout of seven men could take more than an hour to fill. Since putting the systems in place, there have been numerous callouts of this size, and these callouts take only 20 minutes on average. In one case, the automated callout took only 24 minutes to fill a 14-person crew requirement.

From 2008 to 2011, we received four J.D. Power and Associates customer satisfaction awards. We believe the new callout system played a part in winning those awards. The technology serves a strategic purpose because it trims restoration time. The system has also freed our DSOs to concentrate on managing their crews and outages.

DSOs can now put more time into a game plan for power restoration. They have more time to collect intelligence at the scene of an outage and pass that on to the crew. That, of course, contributes to safety. For example, the new callout system includes a notification module. SMECO's DSOs will launch a call to crews via this module if they see personnel coming into close proximity with one another as they restore lines.

Co-ops, like SMECO, often lack the number of people and resources that investor-owned utilities claim. But automating business processes, like callouts, can make a co-op more efficient and give it a way to do more with less.


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