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O&R Overhauls Emergency Response System

Utility says task force looked at its systems in response to major storms in 2011.

Orange and Rockand Utilities today said it has made major changes to improve the company’s response and performance during devastating storms by enhancing communications systems, upgrading computer applications and systems and streamlining its processes and information flow.

“The bottom line objective is for customers to be able to better provide and receive outage and damage-related information and for the Company to use that information to accelerate its restoration efforts,” O&R President and CEO Bill Longhi said.

O&R Vice President for Operations Francis Peverly led the internal task force of 15 experts from disciplines across the utility. The task force’s work in part was guided by feedback from extensive O&R outreach to public officials, the emergency services community, customers and employees in the wake of Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, the most destructive storms ever to hit O&R.

Highlights of the new program include:

  • New and upgraded automated telephone call and information processing systems that have the capability to handle both normal storms and extreme weather events like those that occurred last autumn.
  • Enhanced computer systems and applications that take the data from those calls and turn it into repair assignments and outage reports,
  • A next-generation web and mobile-web based Outage Map application that features the visual display of outages down to the single-service level,
  • New predictive algorithms and supporting systems analysis to provide for more accurate and consistent projected electric service restoration times and
  • A new storm-response blueprint designed to improve the mobilization, deployment and management of field repair resources.

O&R says it has already has implemented many of these improvements, and the remainder will be phased in over the next several months. In addition, further improvements are planned for the remainder of the year.

“This program doesn’t mean customers will not have another power outage when a natural disaster hits. This program means that when a natural disaster strikes, O&R customers can better communicate better with us, we can communicate better with them, including giving them a clearer idea of when their power will be restored, and that our overall restoration process will be more efficient,” Longhi said. 

Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm were the most destructive storms to ever hit O&R. Hurricane Irene cut power on Sunday, Aug. 28 to more than 120,000 of O&R’s 300,000 electric customers or about 40 percent of the utility company’s electric customer base. On Oct. 29, the October snowstorm --- the worst weather event ever to hit the O&R electric system --- dumped as much as 19 inches of snow in some communities, knocking out power to more than 134,000 O&R customers.

In both disasters, the sheer extent of damage to the communities’ infrastructure and the O&R electric system, impeded O&R damage assessment, blocked access to many damage locations and slowed extremely labor-intensive repair work. The volume of customer calls and outage reports caused by each disaster overloaded utility systems throughout the region. O&R’s call center and customer information computer systems were no exception and were not capable of handling the call volume these disasters generated.

“We took a hard look at the lessons learned from Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, combined them with the newest in technology and emergency-response thinking, and built a platform from which we can successfully respond to the next disaster and the disaster after that,” Peverly said.

Details of the new program include:

Enhanced Ability to Answer Calls. O&R’s telephone system typically processes 800,000 calls per year. The same system received 266,000 calls in one week during the snowstorm and 210,000 in one week during Hurricane Irene. The peak volume of calls per hour reached 12,000 in each storm (7,000 were unique calls; the other 5,000 were repeat calls).

To address that issue, O&R has installed a new automated call answering service administered by Twenty-First Century Communications, Inc. (TFCC), an industry leader in call-center solutions. In an emergency situation, O&R will activate that system and the service will route the calls to an interactive voice response (IVR) system. There, the customer will receive a message with information about the event and will have the opportunity to report an outage and immediately receive Estimate Restore Time (ERT) information for their account if it is available. O&R also expanded its daily customer call system from 92 incoming lines to 368 incoming lines 

Transforming Data Into Information. To process the volume of data from the expanded incoming call lines, O&R also has expanded its Outage Management System (OMS). An improved computer program will transform data from automated calls into repair assignments and outage reports.

The information also will go to an updated Outage Map which, in response to emergency services and customer concerns, will display the street locations of single service outages that affect one customer as well as circuit outages which affect multiple customers. In addition to providing customers with a description of the cause of the outage, the Outage Map will be optimized for use on IPad and IPhone and Android phones.   

For the approximately 30 percent of O&R customer callers who prefer to report their outages to a person, O&R also has initiated a plan by which overflow calls during a high-volume period would be automatically transferred to 100 Con Edison customer service representatives who will answer those calls and process outage information.

In addition, to provide an added level of reliability to the customer calling system, O&R is contracting for another TFCC service called MARS (Mutual Assistance Routing System), which taps excess customer service call-answering capacity at other utilities for those utilities that need them for high-volume call situations. This permits O&R to offer even more trained utility company customer service representatives to help those customers who wish to speak personally to a representative.

As part of its effort to more fully serve its customers, particularly during storms and other emergencies, O&R has embarked upon a campaign to obtain up-to-date primary and alternate phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The more contact information O&R has, the quicker it can identify a customer’s account, and the quicker it can help that customer. With the up-to-date primary phone numbers and alternates on file, O&R can identify customers’ accounts as soon they call. Looking forward, this effort also will enhance O&R’s ability to contact customers pro-actively.

To better communicate more fully with customers, O&R also has contracted with TFCC for its Alert system. Alert, which is under development and is expected to be online this summer, is a high-speed, high-volume outbound notification system that lets the Company send time-sensitive information to customers or employees on virtually any electronic device. The speed of this system is dependent on the length or the message and the capacity of the local telephone company switches to process the data. With Alert, O&R can send targeted messages to select groups or geographic areas by landline, cell phone, VoIP phone, PDA, pager, text, e-mail, fax and TTY/TDD machines. Alert also integrates with Twitter and other social media platforms.

More Accurate Service Restoration Times. Until now, damage assessment had been the key factor in how O&R estimates service restoration times. Now, O&R will be refining that process by integrating damage assessment data into a formula that includes a number of other variables such as weather forecasts, storm path location, season, foliage, temperature and time of storm arrival, pre-storm resource planning, and historical knowledge and experience from prior storms combined with initial reports on the storm’s severity (number of incidents, number of customers) to more fully develop a comprehensive picture of a storm’s impact. That analysis will guide O&R in the development of its workforce mobilization timetables, and its equipment and staffing deployment, and as a result, more fully inform its decision-making and strategy about repair, restoration and recovery. 

Once the extent of the event is determined and a solution is plotted and time-lined, the Estimated Restore Times (ERTs) are set. Those ERTs then will be communicated to the public through the full range of O&R communications channels.      

Improved Storm Plan Structure and Process. In addition to customer information and communication system improvements, O&R examined every aspect of the Storm Plan from its organization protocols and activation timing to its staffing needs and its cooperative relationships with state, county and local agencies.

As a result of that intensive study, a number of steps are being taken to streamline this process including a revision of the Incident Command Structure (ICS) to organize the overall effort better, the creation of a municipal storm priority matrix to help clear downed wires and open key roads quicker, the adoption of an improved incident information process for police and fire departments to report damage sites more completely and the development of alternate equipment and personnel staging locations that are closer to the damage to help make the actual repair, restoration and recovery process faster.

That revision also includes new protocols designed to activate more internal and external storm response resources sooner, to create a wider span of control over those resources to utilize them more fully and to tap more quickly materials and staffing resources available from Consolidated Edison of New York, O&R’s sister company in the Consolidated Edison, Inc. family of companies.     

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