Industry Stories

Field Operations in the Time of COVID-19

While much of the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, electricity and natural gas had to be delivered as essential services to homes and businesses. Electric and gas utilities scaled back field operations by sending workers out only for emergency services or the most essential jobs.

Field operations personnel have to travel to substations and far flung locations to inspect, maintain, and repair assets needed for energy delivery. They also visit customer sites to investigate service disruptions or hazardous conditions, such as gas leaks or fallen trees. Even something as routine as starting or stopping service might require a field visit.

As more stay-at-home restrictions are being lifted and utilities look to resume regular field operations, the field personnel face greater exposure to potential infection. Utilities need to act fast and find new strategies to maintain safe and efficient operations while protecting fieldworkers. Creating the right procedures now not only will accommodate the current situation but also provide a blueprint for the next wave of COVID-19 cases as well as other crises to come.

As utilities look to resume normal operations — or something close — they should focus on four important areas:

  1. Look for outside help — The spread of COVID-19 and the reactions to it are evolving rapidly and often unpredictably. In situations like this, organizations need to rely heavily on dependable external sources for up-to-date data and expertise. This is particularly important for businesses that assess risk on a daily or even an hourly basis. Companies are quickly developing new platforms and services for use by a variety of businesses across industries. An example is Esri, a leading geographic information systems company, which has created coronavirus business continuity solutions. These allow companies to use ArcGIS maps and applications to visualize risks geospatially. Infosys already is working with major U.S. utilities to visualize COVID-19 effects in their service territories and develop use cases that will help them return to normal sooner and safer. The version based on only publicly available data is listed here. The best-known example of data collaboration has been U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Researchers there collect COVID-19 data from multiple places, and the university is one of the most cited sources for coronavirus statistics.
  2. Mix internal and external data — Visualizing external risks on a map is an important first step. But businesses unlock true insights when they layer that outside data with information about their own people, facilities, and other assets. As buildings are repurposed as hospitals or testing centers, there is a need to dynamically designate them as critical infrastructure and ensure they have the same continuity services as traditional medical facilities. And understanding where employees live relative to COVID-19 hot spots helps with contingency planning.
  3. Adapt to the new world — While a large portion of the utilities industry is already automated, much more progress can be made. The current circumstances should encourage companies to expand their use of mobile apps for asset inspection, aerial surveillance and computer vision for risk analysis, and condition-based monitoring of assets using internet of things devices and asset health analytics. Even something as simple as voice commands can be useful in the field when there are concerns about spreading disease. Also, some organizations can modify field staffing and practices to consider the vulnerability of their employees. Age and underlying health conditions play a large role in a person’s risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19. This data can be used to adjust the scheduling and dispatching of field crews, although privacy laws can prevent this approach in many places.
  4. Show leadership — Industry leaders need to communicate clearly and often with team members and build trust. Field employees need to be confident that executives and supervisors have taken adequate safety precautions related to protective gear and updated protocols that incorporate the latest and best medical advice.

The actions taken today need to address this singular crisis and find solutions to problems we didn’t know existed two months ago. However, these new steps must pull double duty. They should make the workforce safer from the novel coronavirus and ensure organizations are better prepared for the next emergency, whether it’s small scale or global. The more resilient an organization, the less work will be needed to meet the next crisis or to excel when the world is back in balance.