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Responding to a Disaster

Guha Bharadwaj

First, we appraise. Can we improve the use the Internet of Things (IOT), Crowdsourcing, Drones or Business as Usual so we can start Restoration faster?

It seemed simpler when Ponce de León reportedly was following the task of finding the Fountain of Youth (until a potential informant sent a little poisoned arrow ended the search in a negative manner). Now, we expect almost immediate information that allows us to react faster and more efficiently to support our far-flung assets after a disaster. We have new buzzwords identifying exciting technology (IOT, drones, Crowdsourcing, etc.) to consider, but no simple fountain to find – tools abound, but the map is not clear.

The massive delays of inefficient bureaucracy after Katrina has conditioned the public to not tolerate delays for any reason. Is anyone sympathetic during the first day or so after a disaster, when they find out we are not repairing much because we are still appraising the condition of our assets? This is a challenge for any utility, transit and public agency. When the storm is over or the fire moved on, can you explain to the press why, in this day and age of modern technology, our trained personnel are out appraising damage rather than immediately repairing and installing the equipment that should have been trucked in previously?

Data, data everywhere…

We send our crews out to appraise because immediate information is important. The right equipment needs to be brought in, the fixes sometimes need to be engineered, skilled technicians and appropriate machines need to be mobilized and plans should be better refined and executed.

To reduce the time taken increase the accuracy and completeness of damage appraisal, the IOT, Crowdsourcing, Drones and Business as Usual all have supporting roles.

Business as usual, sending trained workers to appraise the damage, offers the highest quality of appraisal. It works well for small disasters or for organizations with a very limited geographical reach, where the trained crews can arrive quickly. However, if travel time is significant or the damage is widespread, assigning trained personnel to damage appraisal delays the initial, visible restoration work.

Drones appear as the “Next Great Thing that is going to Save the World”. However, they can be quite expensive. They require the appropriate licenses and skills to both fly them. Very important information can be derived, but it takes trained time and effort to review the data, interpret it, and provide it as information that can help with restoration. Additionally, weather and appropriate communication support may be questionable.

The sensors and data from the IOT can be extremely valuable. Utilities that implemented ‘Smart Grid’ projects now have more sensors than ever before. These sensors can provide significant amount of information. Taking this information and using an Outage Management system can help a utility better identify the likely source of major faults.

However, while the electronic signals are helpful, these sensors have neither the eyes nor perception that allows the utility to know the physical status of the poles and equipment. In other words, they know what does not work, but do not know why.

Vox Populi

Crowdsourcing damage appraisal is an emerging area that is seeing greater emphasis but needs further thinking to make it useful. No matter the severity of the disaster, Members of Public (MOP) are the first to get there (in addition, of course, to those who chose to ride the event). Now, almost every person past middle school has a device that takes great pictures and accurately provides geospatial coordinates. While most members of the public do not understand how equipment, structures and other assets work, they often have a great sense of what looks wrong, and love to take pictures and comment on it.

Information from crowdsourcing can be obtained through multiple means. The call center can take limited verbal descriptions. Web sites can request information (beware: it will take quite a bit to interpret, and those who provide information will want feedback). IOS or Android apps can be provided to allow members of the public to provide structured information.

Southern California Edison (SCE), the large electric utility in Southern California, has introduced an interesting step in response to incidents. SCE provides Public First Responders (police, fire, paramedics) with a simple app, from Connixt, which allows them to report information on any field incident. Upon the arrival of the First Responder and use of the app, SCE immediately has a picture, description and exact geo-location of the situation, knows if the first responder will wait for their truck to arrive, and has a conduit for update between the utility and the first responder.

What now?

In this season of storms, with promise of more to come, many questions remain, including: Can we scrape information from social media and manipulate it to provide value for the organization with assets in the field? Is providing a simple app for public reporting of worth? How can we harvest information from the public and first responders to provide information that can assist in restoration plans and activities? And can public relations actually initiate a productive dialog rather than simply react or offer warnings in a time of disaster? And what is the optimal mix of technology and manpower – whether business as usual, iOT or crowdsourcing – to make the right, efficient choices to improve our damage appraisal and damage response plans?

For the utility industry, an industry group is forming to address these and other questions. (For information about this working group, please contact us.)

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