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GIS Sharpens the Four Rs of Electric Utility Emergency Management

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Emergency management is more than a response to a disaster. It is an ongoing process. It begins well before a disaster hits and continues during the incident and into the recovery phase. The four Rs are as follows:

  1. Risk Mitigation—Figure out the network's weaknesses.
  2. Readiness—Deploy crews and material to those areas that are likely to be hardest hit.
  3. Response—Restore service to as many customers as possible.
  4. Recovery—Restore service to the rest of the customers and clean up the mess.

These activities rely heavily on location—the location of the weaknesses, outages, damages, crews, and material. In my early days with the power company, we created dozens of printed map books and stashed them in our emergency centers. Although they were critical to our operations, they had lots of limitations. Today ArcGIS gives utilities immediate access to up-to-date and real-time data. It tells what's going on at any given moment. And it provides insight into what might happen.

Risk Mitigation—Figure Out the Network's Weaknesses

A GIS system stores the condition, history, and location of a utility's assets. It can also access other information such as the location of heavily wooded areas and those designated as flood, lightning, and fire zones. Using spatial analysis, GIS can rank those parts of the network that are most likely to fail during any number of events. GIS can then rank the network assets based on a risk of failure score. Utility staff can prioritize the risks. They can then perform mitigation measures on the riskiest parts of the network. That might include network hardening tree trimming, and building flood barriers.

Readiness—Deploy Crews and Material to Those Areas That Are Likely to Be Hardest Hit

GIS plays a strong logistical role. GIS can determine optimal drive times between emergency centers and warehouses. It can perform risk analysis, which will ensure that the utility is not counting on a staging area that may be unavailable due to the impact of the storm. During a recent flood event, one utility reportedly lost nearly half its line trucks because the staging area was flooded. Readiness also involves testing the plan with dry runs and simulations. GIS can help document the results and perform analysis on the plan's effectiveness.

Response—Restore Service to as Many Customers as Possible

Response happens during the event itself. It's too late at this point for risk mitigation or readiness. The focus is on quick and accurate damage assessment, logistics, and deployment of responders to limit the longevity of the outage. The most critical question during the event is, What is going on right now? At this time, utilities will be challenged to coordinate resources and will find it essential to collaborate with all agencies involved. In an emergency, utilities need to know which streets are impassable. They need to know which bridges are out, where fires are raging. They will need to know which shelters need power. A common operating picture, or situational awareness dashboard, based on GIS gives utilities all this information.

Things happen quickly in an emergency event. Utilities must have a strong handle on the changing situation. During a flood or fire, utilities need to know exactly where all the vehicles and workers are located so they don't get trapped. When crews show up, it is important to have logistical and deployment plans ready and available.

Damage assessment is crucial to figuring out the scope of the work ahead. As soon as damage is reported in the field, planners in the office can view the damage in real time on the GIS dashboard. This helps utilities quickly determine their need for more help. They can access a situational awareness dashboard that changes as information is collected so that emergency managers, and even the public, see an accurate picture of what is currently going on.

Recovery—Restore Service to the Rest of the Customers, and Clean Up the Mess

Once the event is over, the work of putting the system back together begins. Damage assessment should already have been completed. Managers need to assess jumpers, generators, and off-schedule switching. The utility must also account for all plant equipment. The challenge is to make sure everyone is on the same page. Constant communication is essential. Utilities don't want the northern division cleaning up service problems while the southern division is still dealing with main-line issues. A common operating picture of the current state of the system proves critical. GIS enables feedback from the field so operators can answer important questions. What is being installed and where? Where are the crews, and are they accounting for their work?

The Four Rs

A utility company and the community can be devastated by poor performance during an emergency. Failure to respond optimally leads to extended outages, higher costs, frustrated customers, angry regulators, and a damaged public image.

Utilities need accurate and timely data. In the old days of paper maps, asset information was delivered as a snapshot of the network at one point in time. During an emergency, the system of record must be dynamic and updated on the fly. Esri's ArcGIS Utility Network Management technology models networks more completely across all platforms. Things change so rapidity during an emergency that static data is not adequate. ArcGIS is a system of record.

Data must be communicated broadly to everyone involved. That includes not only the field and the office but also first responders and the media. GIS brings data immediately to everyone at any time in real time. It consumes real-time feeds from SCADA; ADMS; weather; traffic; and, in fact, any real-time data feed. ArcGIS is a system of engagement.

GIS provides analysis of where things will fail. It shows where resources are needed most. It supports decision-making and resource allocation. ArcGIS is a system of insight.

ArcGIS sharpens the four Rs.  To learn about ArcGIS solutions, download our free ebook.

Bill Meehan's picture

Thank Bill for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 26, 2019 1:20 pm GMT

For all the potential benefits that real integration of GIS can bring to utilities, the improved safety and emergency response seems to be the most important given that such are the top priorities of any organization. Thanks for sharing, Bill!

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jul 27, 2019 10:13 pm GMT

Hi Matt,  Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with you. Safety and emergency response are paramount. We will be doing more on emergency response in the coming months.  We did a lot of work on safety a couple of months ago, with several blogs.

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Jul 27, 2019 8:33 pm GMT

Hi Bill - Interesting article and very timely!  How would you categorize the effort by utilities to not cause the disaster themselves (ie equipment failure causing a fire?) Seems like that is when a utility needs more than just GIS data but also real-time data from sensors, etc.  Often the GIS data is out-of-date and can cause more problems during an emergency. 

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jul 27, 2019 10:21 pm GMT

Hi Linda.  Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope all is well with you.  You bring up two very important points.  I've written a lot about the data quality of GIS. Utilities need to treat data as a valuable asset, particularly in these highly litigious times. The other to create more prescriptive analysis - how can they prevent issues in the first place.  That will require better data and modeling of their network and its relationship with its surroundings. Utilities have begun to use GIS in a more holistic way to bring in more than their own sensors but to leverage other nonutility sensors (heat sensors, video feeds, sound, lightning, weather, humidity) and social media data. Still more to do.

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