Keeping the lights on starts with documenting on our system maps the location of every single piece of equipment that’s used to deliver electricity to our customers. If that sounds simple enough, just ask one of the 12 GIS (Geographic Information System) technicians who constantly input the latest information for the hundreds of thousands of poles, miles of electric wire and other devices that blanket more than 10,300 square miles across Ohio.
No one understands this immense challenge better than Melissa Volkert, who was hired onto the Graphics team in 1986 to start the process of transferring AEP Ohio’s paper documents to the computer.
“There were literally hand-drawn maps. Each one was incredibly basic – at best I would refer to it as an Etch A Sketch,” said Volkert, now a Canton-based supervisor. “We were told it was a five-year project. We worked around the clock, in shifts, and even on Sundays during the conversion. What’s funny is, thirty five years later and I’m still working on making updates to our system.”
In the years before GPS navigation, an electronic map was nothing more than a locator “pin” underneath lines of coding. The accuracy of the map was and is only as good as the on-the-ground reporting, and more accurate information typically comes in only when necessary work is performed. So unless a pole needs to be replaced or a wire needs to be re-strung, some equipment has been in place for decades without a precise mapped location.
Nevertheless, this huge effort has slowly progressed. Over the years AEP Ohio’s electronic maps have grown increasingly accurate and sophisticated, and they have come to form the foundation upon which all work is performed.
“These maps touch almost every aspect of the company. Everything we do is based out of our mapping system,” Volkert said. “We’re not just putting lines on a page. We’re building a database. It’s not like a flat piece of paper – it’s a three-dimensional, living system basically.”
For example, power lines entered into AEP Ohio’s mapping system now also include data such as length, material, electric rating, size and how many customers are served by the line. This information provides critical data, from knowing where to isolate problems on a circuit to identifying which customers should be notified when a power outage occurs.
For every single job that occurs in the field at AEP Ohio, there’s an accompanying packet outlining the work. The moment each job is completed and signed off, the packet is routed to a graphics technician to make sure it’s properly accounted for in our digital map. This results in an endless flow of work for the GIS team and, with our customer base continuing to grow (and as Volkert can personally attest), it shows no sign of slowing.