This blog is contributed by a Director of Utility Solutions at Unearth.
Last fall, a storm hit Seattle, and I found myself navigating downed power lines and blocked roads to get my daughter home safely.
I wrote a blog afterwards considering the role I could have played documenting the damage and why it’s time to rethink damage assessments.
With significant outages already reported in 2022, it’s vital we continue this conversation: damage assessments will only become more critical as weather grows more severe.
In conversations I had following my post, it’s clear many utilities are working hard to equip field responders with the digital tools they need to capture, share, and view data in real-time.
However, from what I’ve heard, utilities often invest in their own custom-built apps instead of third party software, like Unearth’s rapid damage assessments software.
It’s commendable utilities are pouring so many resources into innovation - and taking the lead in addressing challenges in the field - but there are limitations to an in-house solution.
Emergency managers have shared that after investing so many hours into building a custom app, they still don’t have the capabilities they need. And even worse, the technology has become outdated before it was ever used in a real situation.
In other words, their solution wasn’t ready when an emergency hit.
Let’s unpack this a little further.
Why in-house damage assessment software is limited
First off, it’s important to highlight the immediate challenge in building damage assessment software in-house: it takes a lot of effort, time, and money.
Already, utilities are stretched by urgent upgrades to the grid, critical cybersecurity threats, the pressure of a retiring workforce, and so much more. Developing software is a big-ask when there’s a long list of other priorities.
And even when a solution is complete, it often lacks key capabilities field workers need to do their jobs. Too often, field crews report being handed a software that doesn’t address the reality on the ground or is too unwieldy to provide much value.
You can’t blame a utility here. Third-party software benefits from the insight and testing of multiple customers across the country - incorporating feedback from a broader community to analyze a problem and align with best practices.
A SaaS provider also removes the burden of updates. With an in-house solution, it’s hard to justify the technical investment of keeping emergency management tools up-to-date that only get used every year or two.
Not only do infrequent in-house updates create a cybersecurity risk, but they squander the effort poured into the solution as a utility’s tools become antiquated and lack features requested by the field.
Last but not least, utilities often build work management platforms that don’t allow them to share data or tools easily outside of their organization. According to utilities, the technologies were too difficult and onboarding too complicated for mutual aid and other partners to use.
To avoid wasted time and labor, utility providers need custom solutions built by SaaS vendors, who are singularly focused on building and refining next-generation tools for rapid damage assessments.
Defining an effective rapid damage assessment solution
Utility providers face unprecedented weather and increasingly complex operations - and crews brave long days and taxing work, regardless of wind, snow, or rain. Analog processes and clunky apps exacerbate this stress, promote confusion, and - ultimately - keep workers in the field for longer, prolonging power restoration.
For this reason, we’ve sought out utility providers across the country to better understand what field workers need in a damage assessment solution to do their jobs faster, safer, and more effectively.
So far, we’ve identified four core traits that are critical to empowering damage assessors in the field and transforming power restoration.
Ease-of-use may sound like a no-brainer, but analog methods of data collection and ineffective in-house software persist despite major inefficiencies.
The scope of a damage assessment often requires a utility to draw on non-traditional workers, non-engineers, or volunteers, who would benefit from an easy-to-use interface and standardized forms.
The value of intuitive field operations software grows considerably when you add contractors and mutual aid to the mix, who need support navigating an unfamiliar environment and infrastructure.
Even experienced assessors value simple tools, considering the long hours, chaos, and potential for mistakes following a storm.
To improve the efficiency and accuracy of data collection, next-generation software should provide…
- industry-standard damage assessment forms to ensure consistent reporting and FEMA compliance
- quick capture of audio, video, and images
- the ability to geo-tag this data to an existing asset on a map
2. Mobility & cloud storage
Another important solution trait for utility providers is mobility and cloud storage.
Assessors need to be able to upload data in real-time from their own devices and - if they lose connection - automatically sync once they’re online.
With a mobile-friendly platform, cloud storage, and offline capabilities, command centers can save resources by leveraging BYOD, receive dynamic updates from the field, and easily direct crews to new locations.
In short, utilities can streamline data reporting and empower dispersed operations by turning every device into a command center.
3. Situational awareness
It’s often challenging - or at very least, time-consuming - for field workers to identify assets on a paper map, especially after a storm has damaged infrastructure.
Assessors should be able to view their location within the context of their assignment and surrounding infrastructure - leveraging the power of GIS within the palm of their hand.
Dynamically sorting and filtering asset information is also critical, so assessors can easily find the information they need, when they need it.
Equipped with a map-based platform, workers benefit from location-based insights and unparalleled visibility into the field.
As a utility enters storm mode and expands its workforce, scalability is crucial.
Rapid onboarding, compatibility with BYOD, cloud storage, and streamlined data reporting all contribute to scalability.
But there’s an even more important factor to consider here: adopting a platform that can be leveraged during “blue-sky days.” A utility’s day-to-day inspections, maintenance, or emergency response require the same digital data collection and sharing that damage assessors do.
Put another way, a dynamic platform can improve field work within a utility’s operations and - when a storm does hit - rapidly enter storm mode since teams are familiar with the platform and all infrastructure data is already centralized.
When a utility adopts a single field operations platform throughout their organization, they ensure they’ll actually use it during an emergency, instead of falling back on ineffective analog processes.
Real-time visibility, when every second counts
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these challenges in the field and - shameless plug - whether Unearth’s rapid damage assessment software addresses these needs.
We’re always building new capabilities and refining our features, and we depend on your feedback to ensure our Emergency Response solution is in touch with the reality on the ground.