When Mother Nature packs a wallop, electric cooperative line crews not only fix broken poles and downed wires—they also help document damage for federal reimbursements.
That second task is a tedious but necessary part of the job that crews from Cornhusker Public Power District know all too well, following devastating floods this past spring and treacherous ice storms two years before that.
But enterprising lineworkers at the PPD headquartered in Columbus, Nebraska, have found a way to tackle the cumbersome documentation process—as in-house app developers. Their app streamlines damage assessments required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It has “made it simple for us and them,” said Jim Baumert, a crew foreman at the PPD.
“FEMA requires a lot of additional documentation…before-and-after photos, GPS locations, documentations of what happened,” he said. “So now we can easily send it to them in no time and not have to pick apart data from here, conceptualize it again and put it back together. With an app, a lot fewer processes have to happen.”
Baumert is one of several PPD line professionals who builds apps to enhance job performance when not out in the field. Over the past five years, he and other co-op staff have built about 30 apps to track and streamline vegetation management, transformer change-outs, line patrol, inspections and more.
“We’re at an age where those fresh out of line school expect some of this technology to be at their fingertips. They’re expecting a digital experience,” said Brett Olson, the PPD’s communications supervisor.
Olson gave workers the green light to build an app for meter changes after a contractor-built version fell short of expectations.
“The idea was to develop our very own meter change applications and develop something that could easily pass data between us and our contractor while maintaining data integrity and security,” he said. “The result was an application used by our contractor that was much easier and, in the end, delivered what we needed to get the job done.”
For the most part, employees learn on the job, using geographic information system (GIS) data already collected by the PPD. Some apps are built from scratch and others use “out-of-the-box” templates, such as Fulcrum or Canvas. Olson provides guidance and ensures quality control.
“It’s pretty typical to go through 20 different versions before we get it just right…whether we need to add a field here or grab some data there,” said Olson. “It’s a continuous and collaborative approach that, as we grow, so does the application.”
About 75% of the PPD’s line crews use the apps. Pen and paper are still available for those who opt out. “I got on board when I saw how much it helped us,” said Baumert, adding that the process was “fairly simple” to pick up. Especially valuable, he said, is the ability to incorporate GIS coordinates into FEMA assessments to pinpoint damage in the field, providing a quick location for those unfamiliar with the area.
The employees’ expanded skill set underscores the changing nature of line work over the years. Olson marvels at their ingenuity, especially after they are given some autonomy.
“If the applications are built by the people who need to use them, you find a much better outcome,” he said.
“These guys are more than just someone who changes transformers or goes out in bad weather and turns the lights on. They really do enjoy taking that data and processing it to make their jobs better.”
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