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Technology Corridor

What made BG&E's system more reliable than Pepco's?
Fortnightly Magazine - January 2004

BG&E itself still has only 200 trunk lines for calls, but as Pelligrini explains, its outsource partner can handle 100,000 calls per hour. When a severe outage hits, calls to the company's outage reporting number are routed to the outsourcing center. Once that center issues a work order, the information is sent back to BG&E for action.

Having some type of geographical dispersion of the utility's call center is key to managing outages well, says Julie Hance, senior director of applications and services manager at Orcom.

Utilities can achieve such geographical dispersion by locating call centers in different areas locally, which prevents a centralized call center from being the victim of an outage itself.

Yet in large-scale, massive blackouts, locally dispersed call centers may not be enough. "You can't put just put four guys in a truck and go fix [the local call center]. You can't just all of a sudden have a backup infrastructure," notes Hance. That is why many utilities turn to outsourcing for their outage calls during an event.

Location, Location, Location

Whether or not utilities choose to go with an outsourcing company for call management during an outage crisis, Hance says three components are necessary for all outage management plans:

  • Ability to maintain current status of utility data;
  • Having a backup plan in place and testing it often; and
  • Ability to bring in additional personnel, or leverage personnel off-site.

As Len Turner, executive vice president of Orcom's client operations, points out, it's one thing for a utility to say it will have a geographical dispersion of systems and servers. "But if you do, yet don't have the people to run them, it's kind of a moot point, isn't it?" he asks.

As Hance explains, with outsourcing, when there's a weather disaster in Michigan, a utility there can tap resources outside the local area to keep call centers open and outage information flowing to the affected customer. Because the outsourcing company maintains resources to serve several clients, the affected utility is saved the cost and effort of redundant staffing in several locations.

One of the keys to effective outsourcing for outage management is ensuring up-to-date data mirroring, so that when records are switched over, there's no data loss. Without current data, of course, the outsourcing company's hands will be tied. Yet it isn't only a matter of mirroring data between the utility and the outsourcing com pany, according to Hance. She says the best practice for an outsourcer to mirror data is to maintain client data on geographically distant systems as well. Orcom, for example, maintains two data centers, one in New York, the other in Nebraska. In addition, Turner explains, the two centers swap primary and backup roles for a few days every month, to ensure proper functioning of both in the event of an emergency. (Editor's note: At press time, Alliance Data Systems acquired Orcom.)

Tying Together Outage Management and CIS

In addition to outsourcing its outage calls in 1999, BG&E in the second half of 2003 updated its old outage management system to more closely tie