At 1 a.m., one of Dominion Virginia Power's operations centers learns a pole is down with wires lying across a road. A first responder immediately heads to the scene and quickly determines a line crew is needed to make repairs. Within seconds, Dominion launches an automated callout programmed to apply a complex set of rules governing whom to call and in what order. Minutes later, the callout system has assembled a crew, and the line workers are on their way to the scene to make repairs. By sunrise, the pole is up, the power is restored and the crew returns to the office. The crew members dial into the callout system and record their status.

Callouts have been happening with this speed and efficiency at Dominion since September 2002.

The Old Way

Prior to 2002, Dominion Virginia Power, like many utilities, relied on a manual process to assemble its distribution line crews for after-hours emergencies. When supervisors received word of a power outage in the middle of the night, they reacted by grabbing a paper list and phoning one crew member at a time to assemble a crew as quickly as possible. The feeling was equal parts urgency and frustration as the caller dialed one home phone number or pager after another, moving down the list contacting available line personnel in the prescribed order based on a variety of work rules. Assembling a crew could sometimes take hours, thus increasing restoration time. In addition, Dominion had different callout practices in many of its offices.

In 1998, Dominion generated, transmitted and distributed electricity to approximately 2 million homes and businesses within a 30,000-sq mile (77,700-sq km) area in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. That year, the utility decided that executing its callout process for such a large service area needed to be simpler, faster and more accurate.

Developing a New Callout Plan

Dominion Virginia Power and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 50 assembled a joint-action team to negotiate a set of callout rules for the utility's 35 offices. Out of the negotiations came a 22-page document with callout guidelines that were consistent yet still complex. The new callout procedures were put into place, but the callout process was still manual. Dominion wanted to pursue a more-expedient way of executing callouts.

Safety, continuous improvement, transparency and common sense are inherent to Dominion's culture, and the utility considered each of these factors as it looked to further improve its callout process. In 2002, Dominion's information technology department put together a request for information to support the effort to automate its callout system.

After evaluating a number of vendors, Dominion selected ARCOS Inc., a software vendor that could not only handle Dominion's complex union rules but also automate callouts in a fast and efficient way. The software from ARCOS could identify and automatically call hundreds of available line personnel in seconds, analyze and track responses, and report on the outcome.

Among the utility's primary concerns was how moving from a manual callout process to a computerized process would be perceived by the employees who would be called. Dominion's implementation team visited each office to explain how the new system would work. Uppermost in the minds of the Dominion managers was to not alienate the employees who would be receiving the calls and upon whose response customers depended.

Moving to Automated Callouts

In the summer of 2002, Dominion implemented the new callout system across its service area. As the utility turned on the system, management braced itself for any problems. Dominion put a computer kiosk in every office so employees could see callouts that were initiated the night before. All of the system issues that surfaced were addressed immediately and resolved with the close support of ARCOS. The rollout went according to plan, and the implementation was a success.

The earliest benefit of Dominion's automated callout system was the consistency it provided. When line personnel were needed in the evening or overnight, the operations centers were able to tap into the callout system to make hundreds of calls with the click of a mouse the same way every time. Along with reaching the right people as the joint-action plan had prescribed, the system automatically built an audit trail for message receipt and acknowledgement. Furthermore, Dominion's negotiated callout rules were precisely coded in the software's business rules to ensure accuracy on every callout.

Within a year of launching the system, Dominion Virginia Power began using ARCOS to call out salaried employees. In recent years, the system has become a way to handle callouts as well as to predict resource levels needed to accurately schedule work. Today, the callout system stores information on approximately 7000 employees. As Dominion moved to get all of its data in one place, the utility evolved from callout to crew tracking, and its callout system evolved with it.

A Role Beyond Callouts

Dominion learned Florida Power & Light was considering using ARCOS to track storm-related jobs, which were assigned in addition to normal duties. Dominion liked the concept and decided to use its system to create at least 18 different storm roles for every one of its offices. The callout system now keeps an accounting of personnel activated for a storm and tracks which employees are working an event as well as those who have not yet been assigned.

The system was purely about callouts when Dominion first implemented it in 2002. But through a partnership, in which Dominion encouraged ARCOS to develop new capabilities and ARCOS agreed to take the software development risks, the system gradually evolved into a resource management system for the utility's everyday work and for storm events.

Since implementing the callout system, the utility's response time has improved because crews are assembled and dispatched in minutes rather than hours. And Dominion's dispatchers, who in the past were saddled with taking part in the callout process, can now focus on restoration and providing customers with information about the outage.

The callout system has become an essential tool at Dominion. As part of a 2005-2006 Six Sigma study, Dominion determined that the callout system was at the core of knowing what was going on with the utility's workforce. None of the utility's other systems know the work status of individual employees better than the callout system.

Rising to the Challenge

The callout system at Dominion has become like the hub of a resource management wheel, with spokes leading to the utility's asset and resource management system and Resources-on-Demand storm resource management system.

Looking back on its experience, Dominion does not believe the switch to an automated callout system today would be nearly the quantum leap it was in 2002. For one thing, employees are more comfortable with technology and self-serve Internet applications; therefore, monitoring their callout status online would be more readily accepted.

The callout system touches each line worker and many of Dominion Virginia Power's salaried employees. After many years of successfully running and expanding the capabilities of its callout system, the utility is in the early stages of adding more groups from other business units. The utility believes its customer service centers can benefit from the callout system's resource management capabilities because activating its home agents during storms is not unlike initiating callouts for crews to restore service. Even Dominion executives are now listed among the notification contacts. Recognizing the need for an expedient way to assemble the utility's key-response executives and directors in the event of an emergency situation, Dominion Virginia Power again turned to its callout system, which is now used to alert this team during emergencies.

When Dominion set out to revamp its callout strategy more than a decade ago, the utility aimed to simplify and expedite its responses to after-hours emergencies. But as Dominion has grown, the callout system has been called on to do far more. And in each case, the system has responded, just like Dominion's field workforce.

Integrating the Technology to Restore Power

The more you know, the better. It's an old adage at Dominion Virginia Power, and it's true with computer systems as well.

Robust software applications are essential to restoration efficiency at Dominion, but the real muscle in these systems is in the way they share key information. It's in their integration. Dominion's outage management, resource utilization and, most important, customer information systems are each integral to the company's success. But these systems working together allow Dominion to achieve the highest possible level of excellence.

The most basic components of outage management are the work and the people. Dominion's state-of-the-art Trouble Reporting System (TRSi) supports outage management every day and gets stronger during storms as additional servers are allocated to support the escalated activity.

ARCOS, Dominion's people management application, contains the names, schedules and contact information for all salaried and hourly employees who have storm roles. It is used to activate employees during a storm and shares that information with Macrosoft's Resources-on-Demand (RoD) application.

RoD tracks employee and line personnel location assignments as well as hotel reservations. RoD also shows a list of all personnel assigned to every office, including line crews, contractors, tree crews and patrol teams, and it is integrated with TRSi to show each team's work assignments for the day.

Dominion also uses an electronic scout tool for storm patrol. Teams are assigned distribution lines to patrol, and damage is collected on a GIS map using a handheld computer and uploaded into TRSi for inclusion in work packages assigned to line crews. In its customer information database, Dominion flags its critical infrastructure and high-profile accounts. When any of these customers lose service, that information is shared with TRSi so the outage project is highlighted and assigned a higher-priority score.

In TRSi, Dominion uses the damage information and the project priority score to establish the estimated time of restoration (ETR) and assessed cause for each outage. This information is passed to the Twenty-First Century Communications IVR, which readily provides it to any customer who calls. The ETR and outage cause information is also shared with the GIS application and displayed on Dominion's interactive outage map on the company website.

There are countless benefits to applications integration. You can enter information one time, eliminating duplicate entry in other systems that may need the same information. Some applications can use the supplementary data to improve information they provide. Utilities can gain overall efficiencies when information is consistent across the board — all systems and users drawing on the same information to make decisions.

Steve Chafin, manager of the Emergency Preparedness Center at Dominion Virginia Power in Richmond, has 28 years of experience in electric distribution. His team is charged with delivering effective restoration strategies and efficient resource utilization plans. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and holds a master's degree in business administration from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Companies mentioned in the article:


Dominion Virginia Power

Florida Power & Light


Twenty-First Century Communications