FreeState Invests In Mobile Workforce For Efficiency
New technology at FreeState Electric Cooperative is necessary to stay ahead of an evolving industry while working to keep costs down and rates stable.
In 2017, newly consolidated FreeState decided to adopt a Mobile Work Force that implemented new technology by replacing paper with mobile communication.
Investing in Technology
Before consolidation in 2017, both cooperatives utilized the same system provider--National Information Systems Cooperative (NISC). The consolidation allowed FreeState to merge the two systems into one.
“Two years ago when we got everything together we knew that new technology was going to be available,” said Randy Richards, assistant general manager. “We were able to leverage our position with NISC to test a few of their new products and services, and we took advantage of that.”
“We were also able to cut costs by going to one system or enterprise that would serve the cooperative,” added Richards. “We worked closely with NISC not only on the operations side but the member services side as well with our billing components and service orders.”
FreeState’s line superintendents and member account coordinators use SmartTracks software to manage tasks, crews, and construction projects by scheduling and assigning work. The second component to Mobile Work Force is AppSuite that puts the entire FreeState system onto iPads and mobile phones given to crews. Each truck has a mobile device assigned to it.
“It wasn’t just investing in the system,” said Richards, who added that the board of trustees ultimately decided to move forward with implementing new technology for the co-op workforce. “We had to invest in mobile devices, data centers, and training.”
“This technology gives us a leg up,” said Richards. “It allows us to increase accuracy, communication, and efficiency which all goes back to saving money and providing the best service possible.”
FreeState’s mobile workforce has two significant components that assist with daily operations.
AppSuite Improves Efficiency
FreeState’s adoption of new technologies allows all employees to track and report quickly and efficiently. In the past, the co-op managed with a paper and pencil from the field, but AppSuite enables us to replace the paper with iPads to handle all work from the field or in the office.
Office staff can delegate service orders efficiently, and crews in the field can quickly view, make notes, and complete tasks right from the job site and the information is transmitted in seconds back to the office.
“The ability to dispatch a truck this quickly has given us improved response times,” said Zach Sterling, operations manager. “Our line superintendents or member account coordinators can speak to a member, gather information, and pass that along through our entire system, and the ability to share specific information is valuable.”
Sterling says that notes from office staff while on the phone with members can make all the difference when a line crew gets a service order.
“For example, if a member tells the office or dispatcher that there may be a safety issue like trees or wire on the ground then we can make a note of that and when our crew pulls up that service order – it’s there,” Sterling added. “That information can then be included in any prework safety briefings done and shared with any crew that is there for that job.”
The system also documents right to a member’s account. Crews can add notes and photos can be attached to a specific location or account. Field notes like these can help assist in troubleshooting and improving communication between crews who may visit a site more than once.
“If our crews see a specific issue that is not typical they can document that using their iPad,” Sterling said. “They can snap a photo, scan a meter code, or type in specific notes that may help the next crew that works at that location.”
Mobile Work Force also helps staff communicate with members.
“Providing member and media updates in the event of a large outage is easier by accessing our workflow system,” said Sarah Farlee, PR, and marketing specialist. “I can easily log on and take a look at a specific job or outage to help communicate where our crews are, and what kind of priorities we’re dealing with.”
Farlee added that although the system isn’t always able to provide intricate details of a job, it does give her an idea of crew location and how long they’ve been there.
“Members want to know if we have someone on the way to an outage, or if we anticipate a long wait if we have multiple outages,” Farlee said. “This helps me answer some of those questions. I can see which crews are out and follow progress by tracking service order movement through the mobile system. I can take the information I gather from my mobile device and pair it with field updates from crews to help provide the most up-to-date and accurate information possible.”
Each crew has a number and mobile device with them when they are on duty that allows task management, schedule work, and prioritization.
“We’re able to prioritize jobs and sort what work we have tasked out,” said Sterling. “If we need to rearrange our crews we can do that using this mobile workforce.”
SmartTrack Manages Work & Tasks
SmartTrack is a unique component of FreeState’s system that allows our operations staff to manage and schedule service orders for our crews in the field.
SmartTrack provides FreeState with the ability to:
- Monitor and balance “assigned” work to individual staff.
- Monitor “completed” work.
- Monitor “follow up” tasks or messages from field personnel.
- Monitor “follow up” tasks built into service order workflows.
- Schedule daily activities for “crews.”
- Schedule individual members of the field staff.
- Inquiry into the Operations Schedule to see crew and field personnel assignments for any given day.
“The SmartTrack system does improve our efficiency,” said Sterling. “It allows for instant communication from the field to the office and vice-versa.”
“The management portion allows us to look at the entire workforce and manage service orders, crews, and resources,” Sterling added.
The idea of Mobile Work Force was somewhat mind-blowing for veteran linemen, but the ability to use the iPad has been an easy sell to some of the veterans.
“At first it was a challenge,” said Ron Forshee, Fort Leavenworth line superintendent. “But now, it’s pretty slick.”
Forshee, stationed at the outpost at Fort Leavenworth, said the system gives him the ability to communicate easier.
“It shows us which crew guys are on or off and allows us to easily assign work to the guys when something comes in that wasn’t previously on the schedule that might be a priority,” Forshee added. “The scheduling aspect has improved, and with a couple of clicks or taps, I can have all my tasks out to the crew in moments, or I can request assistance from our engineering staff,”
The communication aspect of showing a calendar has been helpful for the office staff taking calls and assigning work. Amanda Holloway, the member accounts coordinator, says assigning work after member’s call has made her job much more efficient.
“I’m able to answer a call from a member who might need trees trimmed or a light replaced, and as I’m on the phone I can gather all the information I need and then assign that out quickly,” Holloway said. “The work order gets to a crew member in minutes, and then that work order can then be managed and followed.”
Holloway added that tracking orders are more accessible and this allows her to communicate with members on the status of jobs and allows her also to put in specific scheduling requests to accommodate members.
“If a member asks for a specific time that the work is done, for instance, if they want to be on site – then I can take care of that easily,” said Holloway. “With a few clicks, I can communicate that request, and it’s sent right to the Mobile Workforce, and our crews can see all the information.”
Sterling and Holloway both say the ability to be efficient and more accurate are benefits of the implementation of the mobile workforce.
“It’s so much easier to see notes that our crews make on certain jobs,” Holloway said. “I don’t have to worry about inaccurately inputting information from a hand-written work order from the field.”
In the past, paper work orders from the field would come into the office illegible, or damaged due to the nature of the work. Working with the mobile workforce and the iPads eliminates those issues, and it makes communication immediate.
“When we make adjustments in the office those are communicated immediately to our iPads in the field,” said Holloway. “That means our work orders can go out much quicker and allows us to be much more efficient.”
“Not only can I make changes to service orders, but our line superintendents can also make adjustments to crews, or reroute tasks that are higher priorities, and that’s all done from the office,” Holloway added. “Each truck has an iPad, and that work shows up right there on site.”
Along with communication, enhanced safety is possible with this technology.
“We’re able to pinpoint our crew locations from the office in the event of an emergency,” said John Malone, FreeState’s safety and resource manager. “If we ever have a problem we can get help to that crew quicker.”
The adoption of this new technology has not only kept FreeState ahead of the curve but also improved efficiency and communication--two areas critical to members.