Outage communications: From culture change to tech revolution

By Russ Henderson, Senior Research Manager –

Source: Chartwell 2019 Outage Communications Survey, n=52

Utility leaders have spent more than a decade working to convince foremen and their crews that, while they are working to restore power, they must also take the time to communicate about what they are doing.

Crews have asked: “Do you want me to fix it or talk about it?”

Leaders have answered” “Yes.”

Have those efforts paid off?

Definitely. But there is still a lot of work to do.

Many utilities report significant results every year from increasingly sophisticated training and process improvements.

Nevertheless, nearly 90% of respondents to Chartwell’s 2019 Outage Communications Industry Survey agreed that the phrase “do you want me to fix it or talk about it?” represents of the predominant field culture at their utility.

Is this surprising? Probably not. This “restoration first” mentality likely goes back to the very beginnings of the power grid more than a century ago. It represents a practical outlook for individuals doing difficult and dangerous work in complex environments.

Utility leaders today increasingly look to technology, rather than training and incentives, to solve the field communications dilemma.

Chartwell asked utilities, “What is key to getting field crews to communicate about restoration?” While a significant portion or respondents agreed that field crew training and incentives remain vitally important, the majority said the key is to provide technology that enables crews to communicate without interrupting their work.

The data shows that, while training efforts are more sophisticated and effective than ever, more utilities are also working to adapt or replace the technology that their field crews use in ways that better suit the needs of outage communications. SCE’s C3 app is a recent example, and was one of the reasons the utility was this year’s Chartwell Best Practices Gold Award Winner in Outage Communications.

Utilities also are considering hands-free technology. While U.S. utilities have not made significant investments in hands-free devices for crews, the same is not true in China and other countries.

Survey data indicates that about 10% of utilities are currently considering Google Glass or similar technologies. That percentage is likely to climb in the coming years as less-expensive voice-controlled technologies come on the market.

Field crew technology and training is a frequent topic of discussion on the monthly conference calls of Chartwell’s Outage Communications Leadership Council, which has been helping utilities in the U.S.and Canada become and remain leaders in outage communications for more than a decade . If you would like to learn more about this utilities-only peer group, contact me at rhenderson@staging.chartwellinc.com.

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