By Paul Hull
Our whole industry relies on its mobile workforce
Over the years, I have attended hundreds of conferences and trade shows. The people who have impressed me the most have been the utility fleet managers at their annual conference, in Williamsburg. They are, obviously when you talk with them, a qualified, committed, capable group of men and women. They are what make our utility industry one of the most efficient anywhere, anytime. Whether it is the daily get-it-done work of utilities or those unwanted but unavoidable emergencies after natural disasters, the mobile teams seem to function with a smoothness and efficiency that other business sectors could do well to imitate.
Some of the success comes from the tools and equipment the managers and their crews use, but much of it must be credited to an attitude, an awareness of the importance of doing every day’s jobs correctly, and a pride in doing so. If you go through articles and advertisements from past issues of Utility Products you will find many excellent presentations of the equipment that is available, even ways to decide which type of truck or service vehicle is best for your situations. I have never been surprised by the number of managers and supervisors who retain copies of the magazine as reference tools. “Didn’t they have something about that in Utility Products?” is a question frequently asked at the fleet headquarters.
In September, 2008, there were three helpful articles (by Aimee Mehl, David Wilkinson, Brian Smith and Bill Boyce) that addressed problems and solutions for vehicles, essential to today’s mobile workforce. November had that instructive article by Benjamin Wesson on mobile security (for mobile computing). 2008 ended with four excellent features on vehicles and accessories among the year’s final editorial pages. A little research into the expert articles can save you time and money as you manage your mobile crews.
Keeping the Mobility Safe and Efficient
At the plants of most manufacturers of trucks, vans, machines, and vehicles for utility companies, the improvement of designs is a constant task, with the results of all the research incorporated into new products. Users know what they need to keep mobile and manufacturers try to develop equipment to suit those needs. That’s another excellent reason for making sure your drivers and operators have read and understood the manuals for the equipment they use. Today’s aerial lifts may have much in common with yesterday’s models but they are seldom identical. If the new technologies incorporated into lifts and derricks are to be used to their most efficient levels, the operator must understand what needs to be done. I have heard it compared to the parent who gives his student child a computer with multiple functions and discovers that all he does is play games. That’s not the purpose of progress. The best equipment cannot reach its full potential without being operated as it was designed.
Look at ANSI/SIA A92.2 and you will find that only personnel who have received general instructions regarding the inspection, application and operation of aerial devices, including recognition and avoidance of hazards associated with their operation, shall operate an aerial device. Well said, and enough said.
As summer advances, utilities become more aware of imminent threats of bad weather: storms, hurricanes, floods, winds. Such weather-related phenomena can bring down lines and cause outage for customers. Your mobile workers must have the equipment they need to solve the problems and most of you have already planned what to do if an emergency strikes your area. The required equipment can be big or small, and the people who know best what is needed may be the work crews themselves, when it is a matter of hand tools and instruments to give accurate evidence of what is happening at ground level or above. That may apply especially to “special” work in the field.
“I didn’t know that company made those,” is not something you should hear from the manager or supervisor responsible for selecting the instruments and tools of your employees. We have an obligation to research what is available, especially for any tasks that seem to present frequent problems for your mobile workforce. With websites, trade shows, and magazines, there is an abundance of information available. We all have favorite brands, whether we’re discussing personal cars, trucks, tools, baseball teams, clothes, music, or anything we buy. I’m going to repeat this warning I mentioned last fall, a warning given to me by several experienced utility workers. We should not neglect the products of manufacturers other than our favorites or other than those prominently displayed by our local dealers. Some excellent new developments come from companies that are not yet household names and there are some makers who specialize in just what we need for certain jobs. Again, go through the back issues of this magazine. You may find equipment you could use but, for whatever reason, ignored it when you first read the issue.
Mobility and Flexibility
This may seem irrelevant when considering the needs of a mobile workforce but I thought it was especially important when I read it this morning. It is relevant because it emphasizes the role of a mobile workforce in all aspects of its service to customers. Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Columbia Gas of Maryland are adding more than 600 pairs of eyes and ears to their mobile workforce. The company has announced that it will distribute AMBER alerts to all field employees in the 29 counties it serves in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Who benefits? Children. The children of today’s customers. Tomorrow’s customers, if you like. Using MDT (mobile data technology) in field vehicles, vital AMBER Alert information will be sent via email directly to employees. “Utilizing our electronic network and computers in company vehicles,” observes Dan Cote, general manager of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Columbia Gas of Maryland, “we can immediately share this vital information with hundreds of our employees across our service territory, improving the chances of successfully locating missing children.” Columbia has more than 500 MDT-equipped vehicles on the road at any one time and, last year, the vehicles logged more than 5 million miles. The field employees are trained in emergency response techniques, including the effective reporting of important information to local authorities. It seems to me that such a move is a wonderful example of a utility workforce using its potential for customer service as fully as possible.
Another aspect of any mobile workforce is its flexibility, its ability to respond to all kinds of jobs (or emergencies). To maintain this capability, a workforce needs to know that its equipment is running well and that parts are available when they are needed. The inventory of parts is a difficult challenge for any utility. On the one hand you have the crews in the field who know they cannot tell accurately when a part will fail even if they know it will, one day. On the other hand you have the financial people who remind us that parts are inventory and unused investment. They may ask why you need to have so many parts in stock. Both sides have legitimate arguments. The crews need the parts and the imprisonment of unused money is not good for the utility. What’s the solution? One solution is to find a supplier of parts (or it could be tools in many cases) who can supply you promptly with what you need, so quickly that you may hardly know you’ve been missing them. Immediate replacement is impossible, but almost-immediate replacement has been gaining popularity as parts suppliers gain efficiency.
A mobile workforce is primarily ... mobile. Its efficiency and value rely heavily on the mobile equipment it uses. Contrast today’s vehicles with those of a just a few years ago. Service vehicles offer capabilities that used to be classified as “I wish I had something like that in my vehicle.” The interior organization of vans is so much better than it used to be; the exterior array of storage compartments seems perfect (until the next great idea comes along!). There is no reason today for a crew to toss its tools in any random order in the back of a truck because the manufacturers have produced vehicles that are just right for busy workers. Check the ads in magazines like this one! Check the product articles. Check the manufacturers’ website.
The selection of vehicles and aerial lift trucks available for utility work is comprehensive and many of the best advantages (those that make a daily difference to the mobile efficiency) are in the design details. This is where feedback from the field is so useful. It’s why one company made the door openings wider for access to stored items, why lighter weights have become popular for bodies and components. How well do the latches work? Can you lock all the compartments of the service body at the same time? How simple is the security of the vehicle? Partitions, shelves, and cabinets come in many sizes. Which are best for your applications? Is there a place to hold wire reels? Are there convenient storage places for all the tools the crew usually needs?
Mobile workforces are, by their very mandate, remote. Supervision may be done at a distance. Requests and orders are done remotely. With today’s superb communications tools, however, those problems are lessened and managing the mobile crews has become less of a challenge technically. The need for a positive attitude remains and it seems to be achieved in the vast majority of utilities. As a customer, one’s only comment can be: Keep up the good work.