Why WFEC Uses an Automated System During Large-scale Outages
The cooperative has recently received some calls and emails regarding malfunctions with our automated outage reporting system. We are working with the phone company, other vendors and service providers to repair the issues. However, at the time this article was written, the phone company and vendors were still working to determine what the actual problems are and how to fix them.
West Florida Electric Cooperative recognizes that technology is not always the alternative to providing "good old-fashioned customer service" as one of our members recently put it. So let us take a moment to explain why we utilize and automated system during large-scale power outages. We will start by explaining how the system works and then address why we feel it is the most efficient way to handle large call loads.
First, when a member calls into the automated outage reporting system, their phone number is identified by call ID or they are asked to key the information in to identify their account. Each individual call is then posted to a map of our distribution system which provides predictions of open devices.
This automated system answers 12 lines at one time. Since power outages are very unpredictable, having the automated system enables WFEC to be constantly prepared for the worst case scenario. It would not be financially responsible to staff our after-hours service department with 12 people to answer calls that may never come in. And, if staff were answering the phones in person, they would only be able to speak with one person at a time. This would lead to other members getting a busy signal and not being helped efficiently.
The co-op's automated outage reporting system has taken nearly 9,000 outage calls so far this year. This system is also utilized for other applications, such as providing account balances, taking payments and calling line crews in to work. This IVR system has taken well over 50,000 calls this year if you include all of its other functions. Having this type of information readily available to members decreases the office workloads and allows staff to focus on members who need additional clarification or assistance. When functioning properly, automated technology can be a win-win for everyone involved.
"I realize that it is, indeed, frustrating to get an automated attendant. But rest assured, there is a live human being in the office, and often several. They are doing everything within their power to get your power restored," said Penny Bryan, Manager, Member Services. "Having the automated system allows the information line crews need in the field to be gathered while the dispatcher focuses on relaying that information to them. Being focused like this helps our line crews work more safely," she continued.
The automated outage reporting system also helps staff gauge the scale of the outage and identify the device where the problem is located. Often, it is members who leave valuable messages regarding the actual location of the problems that has caused a device to fail, according to Bryan. This expedites the co-op's restoration process.
Having each individual caller identify their account and post to the map also allows us to ping their meter to verify they are without power and that it has been restored. This is particularly helpful during lightning storms because individual transformer fuses can be blown or transformers may be damaged that will not pick up when the main line device is re-energized. This could result in leaving a single member on a section of line without power. Service center personnel can verify that power has been restored to every member before crews leave the area to work another outage.
Without the IVR system and messages from our members, we wouldn't be able to handle outages efficienty. Besides not being able to verify outages or restoration prior to leaving an area, we also wouldn’t be able to determine where the actual problems are located. This could range from a tree on the line to downed power lines or even accidents. As we mentioned before, the limitations of one person answering the phone would literally keep our crews ‘in the dark’ about what is actually happening in the field. Knowing in advance can help us determine the number of crew members needed and the types of equipment and supplies they may need to make repairs. The results of working without this system would be a greatly increased outage time for individual members.
Weather conditions from year to year and the severity of damage caused have a major impact on the number and length of outages the co-op experiences, but we do everything within our power to have a positive impact on things we can safely control, such as outage response and restoration time. This is evident when looking at the previous 5 year’s data, which we refer to as System Average Interruption Data (SAIDI). According to this data, the total average outage time per member in 2011 was 6.9 hours. In 2015, it was 4.2 hours per member. The years in between were also lower than the 2011 average. Since 2011 we have made significant upgrades and improvements to the automated outage system which have helped dispatch crews quicker, identify the cause of an outage in a timelier manner and get our crews to those locations.
WFEC’s members can help the cooperative continue reducing their outage time in several ways. First, they can keep their phone numbers updated. Next, when calling in, if the system doesn’t recognize the phone number, leave a message that includes the name on the account and a phone number where they can be contacted. It is likely that the cooperative may need to call back to verify information. After outages, the co-op almost always uses the information we gather to update member records and improve outcomes for the next outage situation. Finally, if a member knows the cause of the outage, they can leave a message regarding that.
As we mentioned at the start of this article, we are working with the phone company and other vendors to solve the problems some members have recently experienced with the automated outage reporting system. If you’ve recently experienced a problem when trying to report an outage, please contact Penny Bryan at 850.263.3231 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can continue to identify the issues and search for solutions. We will need to know specifics when you call like which phone line you called – for example, 850.263.3231, 850.547.9325, 850.593.6491 or 800.342.7400 or 1.855MYWFECA. Thank you for your assistance and patience as we work to improve our outage reporting system and make the needed adjustments to improve its functionality.