Finding An Outage Without The Scream Test

By: Paul Stirpe, Survalent Technology

2014-09-scream-testMany people in the industrial world used to use a method called the scream test to determine problems. This particular methodology is efficient at driving home the urgency of a service issue. It is even very easy to implement. The scream test goes like this: when you have an outage, the customer calls up and screams at you.

As ludicrous as this may seem, many organizations still have this as their main source of customer interaction. Those organizations fail to recognize that behind one yelling customer are three quietly seething. Behind those three seething individuals is an industrial regulator dusting off his clipboard / laptop. So, what can a pro-active, hardworking utility provider do to solve this dilemma?

The answer is a variation on the typical service issue. Instead of a customer, have your Outage Management System (OMS) do the scream test! After all, your SCADA/OMS system is going to have the information first, so it only makes logical sense that it is the first one to send out a warning.

In earlier years, this would have been done with a 56k modem and pagers. The SCADA system would use a 56k modem to call technicians one by one and leave a pager message. Until the technician called back, the system would keep circling through the list of users.

Since the 2000’s, we've grown immensely in the kinds of the technology that can be used. Furthermore, penetration of SCADA/OMS integration with other enterprise systems such as interactive voice response (IVR), social media (Twitter, Facebook), Web outage portal and Advanced Metering Interfaces (AMI) has reached record highs in the Utility sector. This is no longer a luxury for those with big enough pockets.

By integrating with various utility enterprise systems an OMS can receive instantaneous feedback to help it make decisions on where an outage might have occurred. This information is conveyed to the operations staff, who can then dispatch and update customers on restoration status.

Today's OMS systems are often much more feature-rich than their predecessors. Features not even dreamed up in the early 2000's are now tagged with an idea of being "regular". For example, having your SCADA events being directly tied to the OMS and communicated to customers on their Smart Phones via Twitter or the Outage Web Portal. This is a two way communication with customers also able to report outages via their Smart Phones.

Perhaps the outage is displayed on the company's public Twitter page via a pre-set outage tweeting system. Perhaps the outage causes a post on the company's public Facebook page. Beyond media relations, an outage web portal can use the locations of the outage to build a map. This map can then be posted in real-time on the company's website. The web portal functionality is not the only feature of a modern OMS.

Integrating Smart Meters with SCADA allow outages to be predicted before they happen. While some meters are smarter than others, the basic principle is that metering can be collected remotely on a more frequent basis. This additional information can allow a SCADA system to find and isolate potential problems in advance. For example, if a measurement is calculated at above a pre-set threshold, the SCADA can react by sending a list of symptoms to an operator to act on the potential upcoming outage.

Another fantastic feature behind many smart meters is called last gasp. When an outage occurs, smart meters can directly inform the SCADA/OMS of the outage so it can automatically predict the possible location and extent of the outage. Similarly, smart meters can also be used for verifying restoration by receiving restoration notifications and pinging meters.

The pinging feature is also useful for other purposes. SmartOMS uses its advanced metering infrastructure to allow a dispatch staff to "ping" meters and get relevant information. Customers who are crying wolf can be proven to be crying wolf without dispatch sending someone out to investigate.

SmartOMS also helps build the end of the story of an outage by allowing dispatch to connect specific customer calls to different outcomes. For example, a unique caller can be connected to an automated call back once the issue is resolved. This call back would let them know that the system is up and going. If the outage affects many customers, they can be notified, then dismissed without a call back. This may be a great option if the outage occurs late at night. Both of these functions are not hard-coded into the system; they are at the dispatcher’s discretion. This allows a dispatcher to react one way for one outage, and another way for a different type of outage. It is up to the operator and the information they see in their SCADA to determine the best method of customer interaction.

In summation, modern outage monitoring systems give customers something to cheer about; instead of scream on the phone. For a minimum cost, a utility can launch an outage management system that handles outage notifications, outage restoration, social media, dispatch actions, alerting to customers, reporting and callbacks. Many of these systems also help keep industrial regulators off your back by showing an exact chain of events and resolutions. For many utility companies, that is truly something to cheer about.