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Managing resources for effective disaster response

Gone are the days when companies utilised workforce management solutions just to monitor their day-to-day operations. Now the technology is playing a major role in mission-critical events such as damage assessment and cleanup

Field Service Management Solutions

When a public works truck breaks down in a blizzard during snow removal in Brookline, Massachusetts, dispatchers know exactly where to find the vehicle. That’s because Brookline’s public works department uses fleet management system with telematics that tracks the progress of its fleet and crew in the field.

Telematics, GIS mapping, GPS and cellular communications are playing an increasing role in guiding teams, tracking progress and assigning workers in the aftermath of blizzards, thunderstorms, floods, heat waves and events where the safety of citizens is a major concern. These technologies already are being used extensively in organisations with large fleets and field service organisations to run day-to-day operations. Now they are also playing a role in storm damage assessment and cleanup.

Assessing damage, the ‘mobile’ way

Various agencies and organisations have been turning to these innovative technologies to improve disaster response. Red Cross workers, for instance, use handheld devices to assess damage in the aftermath of natural disasters. While in the past, the Red Cross staff would rush to the scene with clipboards in hand to do their assessments, now they use rugged Nomad handhelds to upload information immediately accessible to analysts at Red Cross headquarters. In 2008, the organisation did 28,000 damage assessments after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike which struck less than three weeks apart.

The handhelds make the process easier and more efficient, says Edward Fitzgerald, Project Manager for Global Relief Technologies, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The company helped the Red Cross deploy the devices. “It’s a substantially more efficient and a more accurate process than the previous paper-based system,” he adds.

In Japan, handhelds have also been used for data collection in the aftermath of earthquakes, helping officials to create maps, reports and detailed analysis of damage so they can quickly generate damage certificates to residents and business owners.

Brookline’s public works department uses fleet management system to track the progress of their fleet during blizzards
GEM, a 24-hr emergency service provider utilises fleet and workforce management solutions to optimise resources

In Monroe County, New York, authorities use a ‘GIS Technology Vehicle’ to respond to emergencies. Equipped with three workstations, ruggedised laptops, a 36-inch plotter, printers, a SmartBoard, big-screen monitor, radios and wireless communications equipment, the vehicle provides communication and information as situations unfold. GIS maps and colour air photos can be printed onboard and circulated among officers responding to an emergency.

As organisations take advantage of telematics, GIS mapping or GPS systems, or a combination of them, the technology is becoming more sophisticated, offering new ways to be efficient and responsive. Tieng these technologies together is workforce management, which is becoming popular at field services organisations with large vehicle fleets. And as it becomes so, organisations that respond to mission-critical events such as floods and blizzards are bound to start adopting it as well.

Technology for the unexpected

Extreme weather events have become common around the globe. Sometimes the damage is limited to a few downed power lines, but in some cases there is widespread damage, with flooded basements, broken gas lines, impassable roads and interruptions in cable and phone services. While first responders get a lot of attention for rushing to emergencies in the aftermath of a hurricane or storm, there is a flurry of activity by highway workers, utility crews and repair and maintenance teams to restore normalcy and protect public safety.

That includes restoring power, repairing downed telephone lines or gas, heating and cable connections. Road-clearing crews and utility workers for instance, get dispatched as soon as the situation permits to restore power. There is a lot of pressure on agencies that respond to these disasters.

Workforce management solutions give dispatchers and managers full visibility into work in the field so they can better plan and track the work. Centralised consoles and dynamic GIS maps give dispatchers real-time visibility on crew locations. A dispatcher knows exactly when crews arrive at a job, how much time they spend there, and when they leave. So when a crew finishes an assignment, the dispatcher can send him to the next task in a smarter, more efficient way.

The municipal utility in Anderson, Indiana, has adopted Trimble Field Management, a GPS-based field services management technology. “When there were storms, the board looked like a chess game. Now, we know exactly where each vehicle is and can schedule repairs by a truck’s proximity to the outage,” says Jason Tuck, GIS consultant and former GIS Manager for Anderson Municipal Power & Light Division. “We can see our trucks real time on a map and make faster and more confident decisions because we know their locations are more accurate.”

Like Anderson Power & Light, any organisation that gets involved in disaster response, including pest control, building maintenance, telephone and cable, plumbing, heating and electrical contractors, water supply, home health care, construction and various state and federal agencies, can improve their response by leveraging field services technology.

Dynamic response

Workforce management solutions deliver lots of data that can be used in real time for on-the-spot decisions and for later review. In real-time situations, managers receive information on how much progress field teams have made, which assignments need coverage, and which workers are available for upcoming tasks. Dynamic scheduling tools deliver visibility into work plans while intelligent assignment tools match skills to tasks.

Next-generation workforce management solutions collect data on the experience and preferences of workers. If a field worker is more familiar than others with a certain area of town, it makes sense to send that worker on assignments there because the worker already knows the roads, shortcuts and the general lay of the land. In addition, nextgeneration workforce management solutions feature self-learning tools that “learn” workers’ preferences on geography and types of tasks, which helps fine-tune the assignment of workers to needed tasks. It also helps to reduce overtime costs, travel time and missed assignments.

At White Mountain Oil & Propane, North Conway, New Hampshire, fleet management technology has yielded some valuable results. “Managers can receive off-hours service or emergency calls (when dispatch is closed), log in, and in a minute know exactly where the problem is and send help,” says Todd Miller, the company’s manager of administration. This can be life saving when power outages from an ice storm or blizzard leave people stranded.

Future planning

Beyond field situations, workforce management delivers analytics about the performance and responsiveness of each worker and team. Organisations compile the data into reports for review to spot trends and the need for improvements. For instance, if crews took too long to arrive, managers can better plan standby crews for future situations.

Use of analytical data helps improve productivity of organisations, making it possible to complete more jobs per day, and helps control costs. For field service organisations, squeezing more jobs into one day in the aftermath of a disaster accelerates the resumption of operations, which helps to minimise lost revenue and bring employees back to work more quickly. It also creates goodwill among customers, who often get frustrated when service restoration takes too long, especially after a storm or strong winds.

“We can give customers a window and the driver will call half an hour before getting there so the customer is always updated on their service status,” says Jeff Bowlby, operations supervisor for New Jersey American Water, which provides water and wastewater service in six counties.