As Indiana's second-largest electric utility, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) is continually focused on improving its level of service for customers. And for many utilities across the country, a company's vegetation management program plays an important role in overall customer satisfaction.

For the last three years, NIPSCO has worked on streamlining its vegetation management program, thanks to a partnership developed with ArborMetrics Solutions.

Up until recently, field personnel kept handwritten records on paper-based forms and carbon slips. NIPSCO's foresters also had to dig through reams of paperwork and file cabinets to find the proper record when a customer called with questions about the work being done at their residence.

The challenge with this outdated approach to recordkeeping was that documentation varied from person to person, and the instructions were sometimes illegible, making it difficult for NIPSCO's tree crews to understand what work needed to be done. The NIPSCO forestry supervisors, tree trimming contractors, work planners and arborists also had a hard time sharing records and logs with one another. So if a tree trimming crew at one work site needed a particular record, then office employees would have to research and retrieve the file, make a copy of it and then mail the record to its destination.

Today, all of NIPSCO's records for landowner contacts, permissions, notifications and quality-control reports are available digitally rather than just in a paper-based format.

Technological Shift

While the tree crews were skilled at safely clearing trees and brush growing near power lines, they struggled to consistently deliver effective communications to customers. As a result, NIPSCO began to explore new ways to provide a better service experience.

In late 2007, NIPSCO released a request for proposals designed to identify a company that could deploy the best of today's technology, while providing professional and experienced field personnel with strong communication skills. NIPSCO was committed to leveraging technology to improve its work planning and customer communications. Combined with the right people and software, the utility could have an unmatched capability to transform the customer experience for the vegetation management program.

NIPSCO interviewed several companies before awarding a contract to ArborMetrics Solutions in early 2008. One key factor why NIPSCO opted to go with ArborMetrics was because of its ArborLine software, which allowed NIPSCO to use its existing geographic information system (GIS) data to digitally capture and overlay vegetation management data.

One of the first steps in the technological shift towards improving work planning and customer communications was to deploy ruggedized convertible ToughBook CF-19 laptops from Panasonic. ArborMetrics installed the computers in each of the utility arborists' vehicles using a specialized mount from Gamber-Johnson and other vendors to power the computers while docked and to help ensure the safety and security of the laptops in the mobile environment.

Each of the laptops features a wireless Internet connection via integrated antenna and embedded mobile broadband, Bluetooth and internal GPS. In the beginning, eight arborists worked on NIPSCO's system, and now more than 20 vegetation management professionals are using the laptops in the field to perform inspections, collect data and obtain permissions.

Transitioning from paper-based recordkeeping to computerized records was a significant leap for some of the field professionals. A few had never used computers to do their jobs, and as a result, needed training on how to effectively use all the technology.

Before introducing them to the new vegetation management software, ArborMetrics first worked to make everyone comfortable with using the computers as an integral part of the job. After a few months of hands-on training, the company began a full roll out of the ArborLine software.

By investing in both people and technology, NIPSCO and its contractors overcame the challenge of hard-to-read handwritten recordkeeping. The tree trimming crews formerly described work and categorized tasks using their own nomenclature, which varied from crew to crew and contractor to contractor. Now, skilled work planners using ArborLine select from a predetermined list of job types, which ensures all of the field vegetation management workforce is speaking in the same language. As the quantity and quality of the information has greatly improved, the work crews are improving their productivity in the field.

Mobile Workforce

Today, many of the field employees are completely mobile, and they rarely have a need to go into a building to work. Using digital cameras, cell phones, ruggedized laptops and in-vehicle printers, they can access e-mail, query county records and communicate with the main office directly from the field.

Work planners can easily collect landowner information, gather data on work specifications and keep updated on the scope of projects. In addition, work planners can now capture customers' signatures digitally with the same ease as signing for a package delivery. Since these field workers have printers mounted in their vehicles, they can dock their computers and print out a copy of the permission slip right from the customer's driveway. They also can synch up the collected data with the utility's database in real time by using wireless Internet.

NIPSCO began using ArborMetrics and ArborLine for only tree- and brush-removal permitting. However, increasing federal and state regulations on utility vegetation management programs have required NIPSCO to greatly expand the use of ArborLine for recordkeeping.

Some of these new rules are significant. For example, NIPSCO now has to document each and every time a work planner visits a residence and knocks on the door. While this was not a task for which the company planned on using the software, it has been able to handle this additional function with minimal customization.

The mobile solution also helps the field workers maintain detailed landowner contacts. For example, a worker can make a note in the customer's record of when door hangers are left at the door and log each contact attempt.

Indiana regulations also require NIPSCO and its contractors provide notice to customers a certain number of days before the start of tree trimming. Using the software, the field personnel are able to record all attempted customer interactions at a given address.

These capabilities become particularly valuable if a customer has a question or lodges a complaint. In this situation, NIPSCO's foresters can access the database and instantly look up the customer by his or her address, date, circuit or pole number, review the tree work that is planned and see the log of previous interactions with them. Utility personnel can then use that information back to immediately address their site-specific issues.

For example, a customer recently called a forester at NIPSCO to file a complaint that they were not notified that NIPSCO would be trimming trees around their home. The forestry supervisor was able to look up the customer's information and show them the permit form they had signed and offer to provide them with another copy. With this information in hand, the supervisor could go over each of the things the tree crew would be doing at their property. In the past, researching one individual paper form like this would have taken several hours and a trip back and forth to the office to track down, but with the new software, it only took the forester a few minutes to resolve the problem.

Data Management

Another benefit of having GPS technology deployed in the trucks is the availability of an automated vehicle locating system. If the work planner faces questions about his or her job location, a manager can look at the individual employee's travel history using GPS to determine whether he or she got out of the truck and visited a particular neighborhood. This kind of quality control is valuable for management, who has access to the records of how each work planner spent his or her day.

NIPSCO foresters and ArborMetrics work planners use the software to manage line clearance contractor work assignments. The collected data is used to develop work manifests and create an organized list of what equipment and personnel resources will be needed. In turn, NIPSCO can then use the ArborLine software to customize maps and generate reports.

For example, they can take a street map, overlay all the customer permits, make full-color maps, scale them down and provide them to the field work crews. While in the past, tree trimming crews wouldn't have had as much access to the data, they now have all the details they need to be as productive as possible.

By investing in technology, NIPSCO has improved the efficiency of its vegetation management program. Ultimately, by taking technology on the road, they are able to improve their productivity and streamline communications between utility customers and the main office.


Jason Lietz (jwlietz@nisource.com) is the supervisor of forestry operations for Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) in Indiana. He has been with the company since 2000. Prior to joining cNIPSCO, he worked for Environmental Consultants Inc.

Companies mentioned:

ArborMetrics Solutions Inc.
www.arbormetricssolutions.com

Cumberland Electric Membership Corp. www.cemc.org

DataSource Mobility datasourcemobility.com

Gamber-Johnson www.gamberjohnson.com

NIPSCO www.nipsco.com

Panasonic www.panasonic.com/business-solutions

PartnerSoft www.partnersoft.co.uk