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More Than a Crisis: Why Utilities Need to Treat COVID-19 Like a Disaster and Respond in Real Time

Bree Bergman's picture
Director of Vertical and Field Marketing, Zebra Technologies

Bree Bergman is Zebra’s director of vertical and field marketing practice lead where she is responsible for managing a team of innovators in the development and execution of the verticals’...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Aug 18, 2020

COVID-19 is a “disaster” – a slow moving one. Yet, many utilities may not view this public health crisis as a “classic” disaster that suddenly disrupts power, natural gas or water service distribution over a wide area. But it is, by definition, a large-scale event that has proven disruptive to normal utility operations. In fact, it could prove to be even more disruptive given its significantly longer duration, which differs dramatically from other disasters in which crews can be dispatched to complete targeted restoration actions quite quickly.

With so many people sheltering at home to limit exposure to COVID-19, utilities are seeing a sharp rise in residential energy and water use. One of the most dramatic illustrations is the reduction in the Duck Curve, the springtime period during which residential solar generation is greater than demand due to the perfect combination of sunny days and low temperatures. Right now, residential daytime demand is up, resulting in lower volumes of solar power “sold” back to the electric grid.

Coincident with this demand is the imperative to keep all utility services operating at 100% availability. Service teams are still called on to maintain utilities’ capabilities at the source and through the distribution network to each home. But now the safety of work crews must be supported in new ways. Utilities must ensure that workers have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and that they understand – and can comply with – policies for social distancing. Enhanced cleaning procedures for trucks and shared tools are requiring the frequent attention of field technicians, plant workers and company leaders alike, and consideration is being given to how temperature checks and exposure testing can be implemented efficiently with available resources.

So yes, COVID-19 represents a disaster scenario for utilities.

How Preparing for a Public Health Incident Is Different Than Any Other Disaster – and Also the Same

Though the COVID-19 crisis requires utilities to react in a significantly different way than they would in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other such types of events, the core principles of disaster preparedness still apply.

Utilities plan for disasters by studying past events and developing new procedures and codifying them in their standard operating procedures (SOP). Operational tools such as computer system capacity, field mobility solutions and supply stockpiles are enhanced in preparation for the day that they are needed most – even if it is not yet known how or why they’ll be needed. Another core tenet is post-disaster debriefings and follow-ups to continuously learn from the last event and improve preparations for the future.

Yes, COVID-19 has prompted increased demand for electricity, gas and water services. However, there aren’t large service disruptions, which is a traditional utility disaster response scenario. And unlike hurricanes and similar weather disasters, this outbreak has longer-lasting global implications.

Therefore, utilities must develop a completely new response strategy – albeit in an equally rigorous way, with the major difference being that it must be deployed while the disaster is happening. They are not preparing for the next disaster. They are preparing for tomorrow because utilities cannot wait until this event is over to debrief and learn.

COVID-19 calls for real-time assessment of and adjustment to preparedness and response plans. This type of situation also requires a more collaborative approach to risk assessments and decision making.  Since utilities are responsible for critical infrastructure, they must keep service teams in the field. Sheltering at home isn’t an option. Supplying workers with masks and sanitizer is essential, but there also are ways to limit the amount of interactions with others.

A few years ago, a major North American electric utility deployed mobile devices to its field service technicians along with a comprehensive software suite. Smartly rolled out in phases and with buy in from the field, the utility immediately saw net savings in its operations. Many of the things it did to improve operational efficiency could be re-purposed today by other utilities as they move to protect their workforces from COVID-19.

For example, utilities could ask their service people to take the mobile-device-equipped trucks home versus returning them to the motor pool. This was a decision that the aforementioned electric utility made to reduce unnecessary drive time, but it could now help limit cross-contamination of vehicles for all utilities. At the start of each shift, the field technicians can simply open their dispatch list and drive from home to the first service location.

Now, this only works if the enabling dispatch and reporting systems work. If you find field technicians frequently coming into the office, despite having the means and permission to stay away, then you need to ask them: “Why are you here?”

As the electric utility learned when it first implemented this practice, some additional refinement was needed to improve its software suite and keep mobile devices running longer. It also realized the need to prepare supply kits that were more reflective of actual usage rates during a week’s time so that technicians could reduce the number of replenishment trips to the warehouse and time spent loading the truck with supplies.  

Extending this to the current emergency, each truck could have its supplies pre-loaded in marked boxes, and the driver could then load the truck without having to go into the warehouse. However, this would be dependent on field technicians having reliable mobile devices that tie into back-end inventory management and dispatch systems to automate restocking requests and coordinate pickup times.

One Lesson Learned: Focusing Only on Localized Impacts Can Have Universal Consequences

As you’re assessing your disaster preparedness plans and executing a response, it is imperative that all decisions and actions align with your utility’s main goals, such as sustaining 100% up-time, responsiveness and safety. Over time, focus on the overall organization’s goals can wander.

It is not uncommon for a department to optimize processes to meet its own goals at the expense of the organization-level goals. For example, a computer manufacturer in a southern U.S. state had to stop its assembly line because a 50-cent PCI slot cover was stuck on a train in a rare Arkansas snowstorm. Those slot covers were coming from across the Pacific Ocean because they were cheaper, but when the factory shut down, they suddenly cost the company more than all of those savings. That procurement department had optimized its numbers over the goals of the company. It could have stockpiled more supply, or sourced a slightly more expensive part locally, but chose to optimize its own performance metrics instead of considering the impact on the organization’s overall performance capabilities in the event of a delivery or quality issue.

Given that up-time, responsiveness and safety are equal priorities for utilities right now, take the time to do a real-time collaborative debrief at both the departmental and organizational levels. What supplies are now on back order? Are there enough gloves and other PPE? What inspections that could have been done sooner are now late? What is now failing in the field at a rate that was fine before, but now adds risk?

Remember, public health crises such as COVID-19 do not conform to the usual disaster response methodology for utilities. It’s not as simple as planning, implementing SOPs, executing and then assessing what happened when it is all over. While utilities cannot be faulted for lacking pandemic-specific plans, they should still recognize that now is the time to modify SOPs, monitor their reactions and do real-time assessments – a cycle that is concurrent with the COVID-19 crisis, not linear with pre- and post-incident debriefs.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 18, 2020

Really interesting assessment, Bree, thanks for sharing. Are there any incidents in the past that had the 'slow-moving disaster' type of feel that utilities can/ should have drawn from? And what do you think the impact is going to be when this 'slow-moving disaster' gets combined with 'traditional' disaster like we're seeing in CA this week or will potentially see as Hurricane season continues in the Southeast? 

Bree Bergman's picture
Thank Bree for the Post!
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