Written by 6:00 am Feature, Service Leadership

Extreme weather events: The mission critical role of field service management technology in helping to restore normalcy

12/06/2014 22:13

More and more extreme weather events are occurring around the globe and the UK in particular has experienced a strengthening in the severity of extreme weather over the past few years. In recent days we have seen terrible and tragic after-effects of severer weather in The Philippines and Sardinia. Only a few weeks ago we saw southern England brought to a standstill as hurricane-force winds and torrential rain battered the region with gusts of almost 100mph ripping up trees, causing flash flooding and leaving at least 220,000 homes without power.

The severity of extreme weather events varies.  Sometimes the damage is limited but in some cases, and indeed following today’s events, there is widespread damage such as flooded basements, broken gas lines, impassable roads and interruptions in cable and phone service.

There is a lot of pressure on field service organisations to respond to these disasters. Road-clearing crews and utility workers, for instance, get dispatched as soon as the situation permits. Plumbers, electricians, construction workers and HVAC technicians are sent to the scene to reconnect services and rebuild damaged structures.

Telematics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, GPS and cellular communications have been playing an increasing role in guiding field service teams, tracking progress and assigning workers in the aftermath of extreme weather events where safety is a concern. As an increasing number of organisations take advantage of these technologies they are becoming more sophisticated, offering new ways to be efficient and responsive.

Field service technology for the unexpected

An increasing number of Field Service organisations are adopting next-generation workforce management solutions which leverage Fleet Management technology and GPS data to deliver real-time information about worker and vehicle locations and the progress of their work. It provides dynamic scheduling tools to optimise in-day and scheduled work, and performance analytics that help make on-the-spot resource deployment decisions as well as prepare for future events.

The technology provides dispatchers and managers full visibility into work in the field so they can better plan and track the work. Centralised consoles and dynamic GIS maps offer real-time visibility on crew locations. A dispatcher knows exactly when a worker(s) arrive at a job, how long they spend there, and when they leave. So when an assignment is completed, the dispatcher can send the crew to the next task in a smarter, more efficient way and, rather than sending a crew across town for the next assignment, the dispatcher looks on the digital map to see where the nearest job is. Shorter distances between jobs mean less time traveling and more time restoring service.

The technology also collects data on the experience and preferences of workers. If a field worker is more familiar than others with a certain area of town, it makes sense to send that worker to assignments there because the worker already knows back roads, shortcuts and the general lay of the land. In addition, next-generation workforce management solutions feature self-learning tools that “learn” workers’ preferences on geography and types of tasks, which helps fine-tune the assignment of workers to needed tasks. It also helps to reduce overtime costs, travel time and missed assignments.

As the workday progresses, managers and dispatchers receive a constant stream of information on GPS location coordinates and the amount of time spent on each assignment. If certain roads are impassable, dispatchers can plan alternative routes to avoid delays. Using fleet management, dispatchers can route drivers around roads shut by fallen trees or flooding. This helps optimise routing and worker productivity, while improving worker safety.

When workforce management is in use, an exception management tool takes note of when tasks are at risk of being missed and a customer may be in danger and not receiving critical service. Alerts are sent to dispatchers about such situations and other scheduling issues so that they can react and reassign field teams as needed.

Future planning

Beyond field situations, workforce management delivers analytics about the performance and responsiveness of each worker and team. Organisations compile the data into reports for review to spot trends and the need for improvements. For instance, if crews took too long to arrive, managers can better plan standby crews for future situations.

Use of analytical data helps improve productivity, making it possible to complete more jobs per day, and helps control costs. For field service organisations, squeezing more jobs into one day in the aftermath of a disaster accelerates the resumption of operations, which helps to minimise lost revenue and bring employees back to work more quickly. It also creates goodwill among customers, who often get frustrated when service restoration takes too long, especially after a storm or strong winds.

Workforce management increases accountability as well, by collecting accurate, reliable information on field operations and associated costs. Managers are better equipped to make the right decisions regarding resource deployment during emergencies and on a daily basis. Beyond that, organisations that base decisions on accurate, meaningful information that reveals historical patterns, trends and metrics can respond more effectively to not only day-to-day tasks but to the next storm, flood, heat wave or blizzard.

International examples

The municipal utility in Anderson, IN, USA has adopted Trimble Field Management, a GPS-based field services management technology. Before that, when ice storms, blizzards or thunderstorms pulled down power lines in Anderson, the utility department tracked its crews by making phone calls and writing their positions on a chalkboard. “When there were storms, the board looked like a chess game. Now, we know exactly where each vehicle is and can schedule repairs by a truck’s proximity to the outage,” says Jason Tuck, GIS consultant and former GIS Manager for Anderson Municipal Power & Light Division. “We can see our trucks real-time on a map and make faster and more confident decisions because we know their locations are more accurate.”

The public works department in Brookline, USA, can immediately respond to stranded crews by tracking their progress constantly. “Now if there’s a snowstorm and a truck breaks down, we know exactly where to find it and the driver,” says Mark Parece, the town’s fleet manager.

At White Mountain Oil & Propane, North Conway, NH, Trimble Fleet Management technology has proven invaluable in such cases. “Managers can receive off-hours service or emergency calls (when dispatch is closed), log in, and in a minute know exactly where the problem is and send help,” says Todd Miller, the company’s manager of administration. This can be lifesaving when power outages from an ice storm or blizzard leave the elderly or families stranded in freezing temperatures without heat.