Why Field Operations Teams Need More Reliable Mobile Technology - and What “Reliable” Even Means
- Aug 25, 2021 9:36 pm GMT
By Jennifer Berg, Sr. Manager, NA Government & Rugged Field Service Markets, Zebra Technologies
The number of natural disasters impacting global communities is growing every year. In 2021 alone, Americans have faced some of the largest forest fires in California history, irregular winter storms in states like Texas, major flash flooding across the South, and the hottest July on record. Though many were originally deemed 100-year events, recent reports indicate these extreme incidents might be the norm going forward. With Mother Nature becoming more unpredictable and aging infrastructure becoming more unstable, field service workers need to be better equipped to respond to the rising number of customers calling for assistance with fixing damaged powerlines, burst pipes and more. People’s lives depend on access to water, electricity, and gas services.
In emergency situations, being on site as soon as it’s safe with the right tools and people is crucial. To ensure customers receive the immediate and proper response required, utility companies should strongly consider mobilizing field teams with technology that can remove the guesswork from critical diagnostic and repair decisions. By equipping front-line workers with rugged handheld mobile computers and tablets that can connect to operational technology systems, for example, they will know where they need to be, when and why.
They will also know what equipment and parts to bring with them and be able to locate the closest warehouse that has those items in stock so they can quickly retrieve them on their way to the outage location. Once onsite, they can tap into a host of diagnostic tools, information systems and augmented reality apps to quickly figure out what must be done to fix issues. They can even enlist the help of remote experts via head-mounted displays and virtual reality apps to reduce additional truck rolls and expedite service restoration.
Equally important, properly equipped field teams can efficiently power through new infrastructure installations and routine maintenance tasks, which help minimize the time power generation and distribution assets are offline in the first place. Prevention is always the best solution, especially when limited power generation or plant capacity coupled with record customer demand repeatedly threaten grid stability.
When evaluating the field workforce’s current mobility toolset and deciding what other hardware or software components are needed, consider what is required to drive greater worker efficiency and operational security.
Device Reliability Requires a Two-Fold Assessment: Stamina and Connectivity
When field workers are tasked with responding to major weather events, they need devices that support standard operating procedures (SOP). For example, any mobile computer or tablet used outside must be durable enough to work in rain, snow, dusty conditions and high temperatures. They must also be easily readable in bright sunlight and have enough power to last all day long – even when pushed to their limits. Other workers using heavy equipment, climbing up power poles, and maneuvering through crammed spaces can also benefit from rugged mobile devices that are more resistant to vibration, bumps and drops – or having tools dropped on them. Workers must also be able to open input/output (I/O) ports or attach peripherals – such as keyboards or mobile printers– without worrying that dust and water will sneak in and crash the system.
When a natural disaster strikes, time is of the essence. That is why it is important for crews to have mobile devices that are as reliable in extreme weather and remote areas as they are on sunny days in the city. Reliability extends beyond the external build, though.
Instead of choosing devices that depend solely on strong wireless signals, companies should consider those equipped with antennas and radio systems designed to maintain a strong connection in places where wireless signals may be weak or unpredictable. Ensuring devices can connect to 4G/5G cellular networks and Wi-Fi will make it easier for technicians to maintain access to real-time data and communicate with others on their teams as they move from site to site. It’s also best to give them rugged, enterprise-grade tablets or mobile computers that are certified to connect to public safety broadband networks such as FirstNet. Utility crews may be authorized to use this spectrum in emergency situations when traditional bands are overloaded or unavailable.
Even in non-emergency situations, workers must be able to communicate with other team members to coordinate installations, report findings from route inspections, and seek advice on how to resolve identified issues. That’s why it’s best to choose mobility solutions – hardware and software – that provide access to corporate emails, and modern communication tools, such as push-to-talk (PTT) and team messaging apps that can be used hands free. They can provide status updates and collaborate more efficiently without pausing operations.
Of course, a stable wireless connection and real-time communications tools can only do so much to boost field worker efficiency. Crews must have the tools needed to be self-sufficient, too. That includes built-in GPS to help them navigate to the right place and access to GIS systems that help them pinpoint the precise location of assets upon arrival. If the asset has a readable barcode label, they can scan it to retrieve manufacturer/model information, installation and maintenance history, and data about the circuit, plant and other infrastructure to which it’s connected.
Mobile Devices Directly Influence Operational Security and Stability
Utility infrastructure is often the target of bad actors, which is why devices used by field workers must provide secure access to databases as well as secure communication channels. Confirm devices are FIPS 140-2-certified and equipped with TPM, CAC/Smart Card readers, encryption, biometrics, and multi-layer authentication options.
By mobilizing crews with secure devices that are durable through extreme conditions, they will be able to stay focused on power outage and restoration efforts without having to worry about whether their mobile device will fail in the process.
The value of field service operations is defined by workers’ ability to prevent and fix customer problems. Making the investment now in more reliable hardware and software solutions could be the saving grace when disaster strikes.
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