Duquesne Light Co. launched its new Outage Management System, including a more interactive and detailed outage map, on the company’s website and mobile app on June 26 after working on it for more than two years. The timing? Just kismet.

The National Weather Service Pittsburgh confirmed on that day six tornadoes hit Western Pennsylvania within an hour, adding to a record number of storms and high winds that have caused major power outages, damage and destruction. To date, the NWS Pittsburgh has reported that 20 tornadoes struck the region with varying levels of intensity, which experts attribute to a warmer winter. WTAE-TV and other media outlets reported that the average is usually about six per year.

DLC officials rated the first test of their new OMS system as “fantastic.”

Kristy Stone, vice president and chief customer officer, said 40,000 customers — residential and business across Allegheny and Beaver counties — lost power on June 26. The new system “worked beautifully” for both customers and DLC employees.

She said DLC wishes it had it been operational on June 17 when 90,000 customers lost power, some for days, the largest power outage the utility has faced in five years.

According to a DLC news release, “This foundational piece of DLC’s ongoing efforts to modernize the electrical grid significantly enhances its outage restoration process and provides higher-quality service to customers. The new system provides greater transparency and more real-time insight into outages across the company’s service territory along with improved outage-related communications.”

The last part is key to how it all works. Notable features include more real-time and personalized notifications for customers; a new interactive outage map with information ranging from the start time of an outage to the status of responding crews; and an upgraded automated phone system that provides customers with enhanced outage information, including more accurate time ranges for power restoration, crew status and outage cause.

The new system provides greater transparency and more real-time insight into outages across the company’s service territory along with improved outage-related communications, which Stone said is key. It will send up to four proactive alerts to customers through text messages and emails, including when an outage is reported, when an outage is confirmed, when the estimated time of restoration is determined and when power has been restored.

Stone and Dan Farrah, DLC vice president and chief information officer, are pleased with how it worked during the June 26 storm. Stone noted that web traffic on the DLC site has increased 150%.  More customers can use it by accessing their accounts online and adding in their communication preferences.

The interactive map on the new Duquesne Light Co.’s Outage Management System. (Duquesne Light Co.)

That part is important. Stone said DLC works on how to best communicate with its customers, and its customer council gives them advice on that among other suggestions.

“We work with them on the types of messages they want to have,” Stone said. “We take a scenario and run it through the test cycle. It shows us the differences in the new and the old system. The results always tell us something.”

Farrah said DLC employees tested the OMS before it went live by running the old and the new systems concurrently for six months. That gave DLC employees time to learn how to use it and determine how much work still needed to be done on it, preparing for the flip in systems. That testing included outside partners who provided software components for it.

DLC invested several million dollars for the new OMS. Stone said, “It’s one that we knew we needed to make. Customers need it.”

And now, the fine tuning begins, Stone said, including ensuring that the “communication experience has to match our technology updates.”

Farrah added that this tweaking and checking is typical for a big software program overhaul, and intensive checking started from the time DLC went live with the new system for a total of six weeks. “Now, we are addressing any issues that can come up. We are in the middle of that right now,” he said. “But by all accounts, we are good.” 

Stone said, “This is a new car for us, so we’re fine tuning. It’s not that major.”

DLC continues to work on asking customers to log in online and update their preferences — email, cell- or home phone. The utility sent customers emails this week with a link to do just that.

When major storms hit, Stone said every DLC employee drops other work and is on storm duty.

For example, DLC has a year-round vegetation system that works on trimming trees and other growth that hangs on or blocks power lines. That work is essential in preventing power outages, but it is paused until the weather calms down.

And when severe storms cause trees to fall, break or pull down power lines, outside contractors can be hired to help, just as DLC can do in other more normal situations, such as an accident where a vehicle hits a pole. Major vegetation growth – in large part caused by excess rain in May and other major rain storms – may require additional assistance to remove.

Farrah said because the region has been riddled with tornadoes and other severe windstorms, another benefit for DLC is that the new OMS provides employees with data the older system could not and helps them respond and with record-keeping and research. “On [the June] 26th outages, you can see the pattern of where the really bad storm went through,” he said. “It’s very granular. You can see it extensively.”

In addition to the storms, the high heat the region experienced resulted in power outages. Stone said DLC will keep watch for more spikes in temperatures. She said it has had to monitor its own plants, too, as well as customers’ homes and businesses, to handle those. Again, reporting on the new system helps crews respond faster.  

With all of this, Stone is pleased with this first test and the utility’s track record of restoring power. “We do a good job of restoration methods,” she said. “On the 26th, we were very happy with the results.”   

Duquesne Light Co. customers can report on outage by accessing their account online and clicking on this page. (Duquesne Light Co.)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.