Sunshine and warm temperatures often help many forget the bone chilling cold of the previous winter. However, in Baltimore City, a polar vortex that kept thermometers below freezing throughout much of February won’t be forgotten any time soon. In addition to historic low temperatures, the unprecedented wave of cold caused a record number of water meters, service lines and mains to freeze, impacting citizens and customers throughout the region. KCI helped the Department of Public Works (DPW) develop and implement an organized, methodical response to the more than 8,000 water-related service calls by managing and distributing geospatial data to support prioritization, dispatch, investigation and tracking of repairs.
The call volume for water-related issues, like frozen meters, broken mains or water in basements, usually averages less than 50 per day. During the sustained cold temperatures experienced this winter, that number peaked at 1,400 calls on February 20.
With complaints and requests for service piling up, the city set up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), headed by Amy J. Purves, PE, Chief of the DPW’s IT Division. “Opening the EOC was something we hadn’t yet done for this kind of emergency, but the overall concept was to centralize our dispatch and our communications, and to automate as much as possible,” she said. “The manual process of over radio or printing a service request just could not keep up with the workflow.”
The EOC was physically located at the city’s Park Terminal facility, home to the Office of Asset Management (OAM) as well as several of KCI’s geospatial analysts who support various DPW programs on a day-to-day basis. “Our on-site team manages GIS data and leverages it to identify inefficiencies,” said lead business analyst Joseph W. Murk. “Then we try to get ahead of them in terms of compliance, preventative maintenance and capital planning.” KCI employees provide both staff augmentation and consulting services to OAM, mainly supporting programs associated with underground wet utilities like water and sewer infrastructure.
Once the EOC opened to address the water crisis, it was all hands on deck to support the emergency operations, including around-the-clock shifts. “Our folks answered phones, responded to any needs, and spent time with the field crews, making sure they had accurate information,” said Vice President and Geospatial Solutions Regional Practice Leader Douglas V. Goldsmith. “That continued from the 8,000-plus logged complaints until the center was deactivated weeks later.”
The first major task was to organize the mountain of service calls received. “We analyzed them spatially and by the length of time the request had been open so that the EOC could dispatch crews more logically,” said KCI senior analyst Alan E. Foster. “We looked at the oldest and most densely clustered calls for service and grouped them into work packages for maintenance investigators.”
The geospatial analysts also needed to identify and flag duplicate calls in the system. “Either a single customer would call repeatedly for the same incident thinking that might push them to the top of the pile, or numerous complaints would be received for the same incident,” said Foster. “We created parent relationships so that the system preserved the information for future questions, closing duplicates with a goal of maintaining the oldest record so that we could accurately track who had been without water the longest.” They also worked to identify special cases, like medical necessities, that needed to be elevated in priority.
The fact that we could work alongside city employees and other subcontractors without boundaries in an emergency—that’s a great culture.
Alan E. Foster, GISPSenior GIS Business Analyst
Foster has worked in the OAM office for over a year, while KCI analysts David E. Thompson and Stephen R. Lampo are even more intimately familiar with the city staff and processes having spent the last four years at Park Terminal. “You know the crew members and leaders, the investigators, and the chiefs,” said Thompson. “Those relationships and the trust built from them helped us to sit in the EOC and make suggestions and decisions,” added Foster.
With data organization underway, KCI staff began helping with automated dispatch and batch updates to Baltimore’s Cityworks database to keep the system current, avoid multiple crews being sent to the same location and enable up-to-the-minute reporting that the public and press demanded.
Thompson quickly developed a solid understanding of how rapidly a crew could complete a series of service requests. He would compile work packages and send out an investigator, who then became the link between the EOC and the asset in the ground. Investigators can pull meters and thaw lines, but larger instances required contractors to repair water main or service line breaks.
It became apparent that field personnel could use additional information to expedite service calls. In just one day, KCI added a data layer to an existing mobile utility viewer (see Mobile Movement) that included all the critical water complaint information and resulting repair work orders. This data layer allowed investigators to use a tablet in the field to see their location as well as nearby and possibly related complaints. They could locate the service call along with the customer phone number and comments. A map view helped investigators pinpoint meters, which were often buried under snow and ice. Using a water main trace application, field crews could quickly identify valves that needed to be closed in order to isolate a section of water main.
During the latter half of February, city and contractor crews worked night and day to thaw lines, repair breaks and replace meters throughout Baltimore City and county. On average, each crew was assigned 25 to 30 incidents over the course of a 12-hour shift. Although the EOC was finally deactivated in March, when water had been restored throughout the area and the outstanding call volume dropped below 200, contractors continued working on water main breaks over the following weeks.
The KCI team of analysts and programmers continue to support the DPW and OAM through day-to-day data management, program execution and application development. “The firm has always felt a strong allegiance to Baltimore, and we’re proud that they have faith and trust in us to support them whether in crisis or routine operations,” said Goldsmith. “They challenge us—they make us better, and in return we get to help them incorporate technology that creates efficiency, saves money, decreases response time, and allows the city to better serve its citizens.” The DPW plans to use the lessons learned and technology developed during the emergency water response efforts to further improve efficiency and response times.