By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
This has been a weird, volatile, and often frightening year for extreme weather – from massive floods in the northeast, wildfires in Canada, the western U.S. and Hawaii, to record-setting heat waves across the country. In late July, people were dying from extreme heat in Arizona, but skiing in California.
There was recently an article in the New York Times about the challenges that extreme heat poses for air conditioning repair companies, with a particular focus on José Guerrero, based in Phoenix, who has certainly been busy this summer. Guerrero runs a small company (most of the employees are his family) and has not only struggled to keep up with demand, but also finds himself working in attics where temperatures have exceeded 150 degrees. There are days and times when they simply cannot work, risking fainting or far worse.
With weather extremes increasing throughout almost every season, field service companies need to have technology that can help them take weather, alongside other considerations, into account for planning and scheduling optimization.
Extreme weather events are not just driving up the number of calls fielded by HVAC repair teams and utility companies; they are also making it difficult for technicians to get to job sites. In Vermont, flooding washed away massive chunks of major roadways. In the west, wildfires can make certain areas inaccessible. While weather forecasting has made predicting certain conditions – like big snowstorms or heavy rain – more foreseeable, conditions during and after these events can increase service demand while making customers much more difficult to reach.
These conditions can not only thwart routing and scheduling, but potentially put employees at risk. Planning and scheduling solutions must be nimble enough to reroute work, even when conditions on the ground (or the ground itself) are constantly changing.
There are a few ways weather can have a big impact on service delivery:
Demand: This is the obvious one. If there is a heat dome like the one that spread across the American west and south this summer, demand is going to go up for HVAC repair and electrical utility service calls; the same is true for frigid temperatures in the winter. Planning solutions must be able to rapidly ramp up to accommodate more volume, and companies have to be able to muster more technicians on fairly short notice.
Routing: This one is trickier. For really bad weather events (like that flooding in Vermont, or big wildfire) technicians that work for utilities may be dispatched right alongside first responders into the heart of a developing natural disaster. Your route may be blocked by traffic or an impassable road. Technicians should be able to communicate that information back to dispatch and have it incorporated into the routing technology, and then communicate with customers (and possibly emergency personnel) if there are delays. That requires agile mobile technology, and an intelligent routing solution.
Safety: This one is easy to overlook in an emergency, but it is important. Just because you can route a technician safely to a customer location, does not mean they should be working on an asphalt roof in 120-degree heat, or remain in the path of a fire or floodwaters. Technicians need plans and processes in place for hydration and frequent breaks, the right clothing for the job, and weather and safety gear. They also need to know that if they do not feel safe, they can communicate that to their customers and supervisors without worrying about recriminations.
Safety issues can go farther than that. On the Gulf Coast, a lot of companies keep provisions on hand in case workers are stranded during hurricane season (food, blankets, beds, life vests, you name it). For field service organizations that operate in the path of severe seasonal weather, that type of safety planning may become even more important as the weather gets wilder.
Planning and scheduling optimization tools use a lot of parameters to route technicians — experience, client requirements, drive times, traffic. Weather can be harder to predict, but as we experience more severe and dangerous conditions, field service companies and their software providers will need to do an even better job of incorporating weather information to make sure technicians can reach customers quickly and safely.
Have you had experience routing technicians during extreme weather events? I would love to hear what strategies and tools you used.