Mobile applications facilitate post disaster-recovery operations.

Americans across the Southeast and living in unincorporated territories in the Southern Atlantic are cleaning up in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both of which struck over the course of three weeks in August and September. Puerto Rico is in particularly bad shape, Reuters reported. The Caribbean island, home to 3.4 million residents, has no power or cellular phone service. Flood water and wind destroyed many of the structures that once populated the island, leaving most Puerto Ricans homeless and without access to basic services, according to The New York Times. Crews from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority are working diligently to restore power, a feat those familiar with the situation believe would improve conditions considerably and allow disaster relief organizations to begin long-term recovery operations in earnest. However, this is no easy task. Approximately 90 percent of the electrical distribution networks in Puerto Rico do not function, meaning the linemen on the island have a lot of work ahead of them.

"The country is likely going to be without power for months," Ismael Perez, an engineer and one of the millions of Puerto Ricans displaced by Maria, told the Reuters.

For most utilities, the on-the-ground situation PREPA crews are currently encountering may seem like an aberration – the product of a once-and-century weather event. This is accurate to some extent. However, super storms have become more common in recent years, according to research from the National Centers for Environmental Information. More than 100 billion-dollar weather disasters have materialized over the last decade.

While utilities in the continental U.S. – especially those in inland regions – may have little chance of experiencing disasters on the same scale as the one unfolding in Puerto Rico, they should put protocols in place for addressing large-scale outage events that occur as a result of abnormally extreme weather. This planning should not only involve the development of specialized operational policies but also a comprehensive review of existing backend technology. When large swaths of the community are without power and dealing with other external variables such as flooding or wind damage, these systems must remain reliable and facilitate outage management efforts. Power providers without such solutions in place, should consider adopting new software made to support intense recovery efforts. Where should utilities in this position start? Mobile applications. These on-the-go tools are effective on both the field and customer service sides of the operation.

Collaborating with the community
Nearly 80 percent of American adults own smartphones, according to data from Pew Research Center. On average, these technology-savvy communicators access nine separate applications per day and roughly 30 a month, analysts for App Annie found. From banking to dating, modern Americans use their mobile devices to do just about everything. Surprisingly, organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency encourage individuals employ their devices during natural disasters, as these portals support streamline communication between relief agencies and victims. Utility companies can form similarly reliable links with customers suffering from disaster-related power outages by using mobile applications.

With these digital assets, power companies can push updates to community members and keep them informed as linemen survey damage and begin re-establishing critical service delivery structure. Mobile applications also empower customers to participate in recovery efforts, as they can report outages and other field-related issues that might affect power restoration efforts. Overall, this sort of fluid customer-to-utility communication streamlines and accelerates recovery. It can also take pressure off of back office operations, especially dispatch departments that can get overloaded during large-scale outage events. On the outside, mobile applications may seem like frivolous accessories that do little more than facilitate online account management. In reality, these tools can have an immense effect – even in the wake of destructive weather events.

Mobile applications facilitate post disaster-recovery operations.Mobile applications facilitate post disaster-recovery operations.

Supporting safe and reliable field operations
We have discussed some of the benefits that come along with mobile applications designed for field operations in the past. When disaster strikes, these tools only increase in importance. On-the-go portals equipped with connections to overarching outage management systems allow crews to address downed equipment in a timely fashion and easily adjust when conditions in the field change. They also enable better organization, as linemen can perform triage and focus their efforts on electrical fixtures that power critical facilities such as hospitals or distribute electricity across the community. The PREPA crews working in Puerto Rico are most certainly employing this approach – it is the only feasible way they can effectively address the thousands of down delivery structures dotting the island.

In addition to generally streamlining operations, utility-facing mobile applications include specialized features that make duties like large-scale vegetation management easier. Cities rocked by major weather events are usually left covered in debris. For example, Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York City and the surrounding areas in 2012, toppled more than 8,000 trees, The New York Times reported. The utility crews that dealt with the aftermath of this storm had to address this fallen foliage before starting work on down power lines. Mobile applications can assist with such operations, giving linemen the power to collect accurate records on fallen trees and other debris that may prove problematic, even after these items have been cleared away or mitigated. These portals also make it easier to gather information for compliance purposes.

Together, these capabilities alone are enough to justify investment. However, field-ready mobile applications offer benefits in another important operational area: worker safety. In ideal conditions, linemen face dangerous conditions rarely seen in similar professions. From exposed wiring and finicky electrical features to extreme heights and outdoor conditions, electrical workers face numerous hazards every day on the job. In fact, the Department of Labor ranked electrical worker as the ninth most dangerous job in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent year the agency collected data on the subject. That year, 26 linemen perished while working, resulting in a fatality work injury rate of 20.5.

In the wake of a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Maria, the risks multiply. Linemen participating in power restoration efforts not only encounter obvious hazards like flooded roadways or compromised structures, but also less evident dangers such as contaminated flood water, which can transmit serious diseases such as cholera and hepatitis A, according to the World Health Organization. Earlier this month, a Houston woman died after contracting flesh-eating bacteria while navigating flood waters in the days following Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Chronicle reported. Utilities leveraging field applications can protect linemen from disaster-related dangers of all types, as managers monitoring operations from headquarters can warn crews of coming hazards via notifications. Of course, workers can also view information submitted by colleagues who ventured out earlier and found the conditions to be less than ideal. And, if incidents occur in the field, supervisors can easily track injured workers to their locations via their applications and send assistance.

Addressing damaged service delivery features in the wake of a natural disaster is a dangerous job but linemen applications can make it slightly safer.

Acting now to address operational loopholes
With the recent devastation in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and other U.S. territories in mind, utility companies must get a jump start on developing workable disaster recovery protocols backed by cutting-edge outage and workforce management technology. When extreme weather damages communities, power providers should be able to react quickly, establish strong communication channels with customers and roll out actionable strategies that allow linemen to get the job done safely. Mobile applications facilitate such responsiveness, empowering both customers and field workers. 

Is your utility prepared to bolster its backend systems in an effort to properly prepare for the recovery operations following major weather events? Connect with DataVoice. Utility companies across the country trust our nature-tested mobile solutions and outage management technology to support power restoration efforts at any scale. Contact us today to learn more about our outage management system and customer and linemen applications.

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