Powering Through Outages: Creating a Communication Channel Through the Control Room

Have you ever turned your car around on the way to work because you realized you left your phone at home? How about borrowed a charger from a co-worker because your battery was almost dead? These days, it is hard to imagine living without your mobile phone, much less without power. And when the lights go out, we’re less and less likely to light a couple candles and settle down with a book. Frequently, families will stay with relatives or move into a hotel room just to avoid being without power for a few days. When power goes out, the burning question becomes “When will the power be back on?”

And, when the power doesn’t come back on quickly, we start looking for answers and call our utility company. The person who picks up the phone to answer that call is typically in customer service with limited access to real time outage information. Unfortunately, the call center cannot just hand incoming calls over to someone in the control room, as the operators have their hands full attempting to restore power.

However, information requests directed to the control room generally seek two pieces of information: restoration times and the number of customers without power. Giving call centers more access to this information can help resolve incoming questions and create a more direct line of information to the public.

Concrete Estimates of Outage Numbers

Utilities need accurate estimates of how many customers are out of power. This can be especially difficult for Transmission, which often deals in retail stations, where their customer is a local municipality or cooperative. They may only know that certain stations are out of power. Telling the public that 18 stations are out of power means little to them. That number needs to be converted to a customer count: 360,000 businesses and residences out of power is something the average customer can understand. We can extrapolate from a number like this to a timeframe by which most customers should be restored. Outage numbers are especially important for:

  • Company Leadership: Inside the utility company, leaders need to make decisions on how to best staff control centers. They also need to make decisions on when to request external help and how much help is needed. There may even be neighboring utilities requesting information or joint work in order to restore important tie lines.
  • The Media: Why is all this information important? The control room is a key source of information when the company responds to requests from the media or local governments for information.

Accurate Outage Restoration Times.

In order to make reliable estimates, operators need to know what crew resources are available, which outages are being worked, and what type of repairs need to be made. Damage assessments are vital in this regard and the information is especially important to specific groups:

  • The Call Center: With an accurate expected restoration time, phone operators can relay this information directly to the customer, preferably providing an outage cause and a time when power is expected to be restored. Without this information, the only way to obtain it is to place a call to the control room and hope someone has good information. Customers quickly become frustrated when there is no information about the outage, the restoration time is unknown, or the restoration time lapses without power being restored. Some customers will have submitted proof of a genuine medical condition for which access to power is vital, such as requirements for supplemental oxygen, and have received a medical flag on their account. These customers often need to decide in as little as four hours to seek other shelter or an alternate source of electric power.
  • Key Facilities: Hospitals may need to make crucial decisions on relocating critical patients.
  • Emergency Organizations: Police and fire departments will generally station vehicles and personnel near downed wires or electrical equipment around the clock until repairs are made. Their resources are taxed as much as the utility for large events and they need information to manage their shifts and ensure access of major roadways.
  • Logistic Coordinators: These personnel need to know when certain areas will have power restored so they can billet emergency crews and provide food for workers during extended shifts. They also need to find accessible staging sites for vehicles and equipment.
  • The Media: News agencies also look for restoration times. They are generally most interested in the restoration time for the entire event, or the restoration time for a large area such as a town or county. With proper information in hand, the media can be a valuable partner in spreading the utility’s message to the customer base.

When the call center is able to respond to incoming requests and questions about outages, it frees the control room to focus on the work it needs to complete like crew availability, work packages, restoration switching, dispatching, logistics, and even financial matters like capital and maintenance designations of repairs. This focus helps keep outage durations to a minimum and in the end, electric rates down.