The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority hopes to improve service to citizens by outfitting crews with pen barcode scanners and notebooks, says Nathaniel Rafalski.

5 Technologies for Field Workers

Mobile devices and applications ease the jobs of on-the-go state and local government employees.

As the economy continues to put a stranglehold on state and local government budgets, officials seek to eke out the most from the infrastructure and personnel they have in place. Therefore, many have shifted mobile technology projects to the front burner to heighten efficiency and keep what limited resources they have in the field.

“It’s best for governments to focus on mobile technologies that will make them more proactive,” says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group consultancy in Ashland, Mass. “For instance, if they can use technology to identify the potential for a water main break before it happens, that’s a smart investment.”

Read on for details about five technologies that can ease the job of field workers.

1. Pen Barcode Scanners

This summer, the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority will equip the agency’s 60 field crews with pen scanners and tablet PCs, says Nathaniel Rafalski, director of information services for the Pennsylvania agency. The project marks the final phase of a multiyear asset management project aimed at lessening reactive infrastructure repairs, shortening maintenance windows and improving overall customer service.

Using Wasp Barcode Technologies’ WWR2900 pen barcode scanners and Panasonic CF-19 Toughbooks, which cost less than $3,500 per set, field service crews can scan recently installed barcodes on manhole covers, inlets, pipes and other critical infrastructure to retrieve detailed information from the county’s enterprise resource planning database about the equipments’ age, maintenance record, recalls and interconnects.

Workers can also use the scanned barcode to generate the proper work order form and then transmit that to headquarters, alleviating an otherwise tedious paperwork cycle and improving customer relations. “As soon as customer service teams receive a call regarding a strange odor or broken manhole cover, they can route it directly to the field crews and then, once the work is completed, access details about the repair to report back to callers,” he says.

Rafalski adds that the barcode project will help with budgeting for equipment and personnel. He predicts the agency will realize a complete return on investment on the project within 10 years.

2. Geographic Information Systems

The NEWPORT News Waterworks serves more than 400,000 residents, which translates into 130,000 meters that have to be read either monthly or bimonthly. With only 10 to 15 meter readers, that can be challenging, says Charlene Sevier, IT manager for the municipal agency in Virginia. Each meter reader’s route is optimized and properly balanced using geographic information system software associated with real-time data from the agency’s database. The geographic information system is used to assess locations and assign routes.

“In the past, we would have had to send a supervisor out to redraw the routes, and those updates would have been entered manually. Now, with GIS, it’s all done automatically,” Sevier says.

Number of assets the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority has tagged with barcodes, including pipes, manhole covers and drains.

3. Tablet PCs

The Mecklenburg EMS Agency, a partnership between Mecklenburg County, Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare, serves Charlotte, N.C., and six surrounding towns — a hefty footprint for 58 ambulance units.

To ensure that paramedics stay in the field and are able to narrow the time between transports, Assistant Director of Operations Barry Bagwell relies on a double-tablet system in each rig. One is mounted near the driver to enable rapid-fire global positioning system guidance between destinations and to facilitate two-way communications with dispatchers. The other resides with the paramedics administering patient care and is used to capture clinical findings. Bagwell says the Panasonic Toughbook CF-19s use Bluetooth to automatically download life-saving biomedical data, such as cardiac function, from on-board equipment as a .wav file that can be transferred along with the patient.

“The real impact of using these notebooks is in data capture and quality. When fully maximized, the Toughbooks make patient reporting extremely efficient and reliable,” he says.

4. Global Positioning Systems

You Could say that the town of Islip, N.Y., has used geographic positioning systems to turn lemons into lemonade. Starting in 2001, the town was forced to comply with federal mandates such as the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which requires it to inventory every asset from utility poles to sidewalks to drainage assets to desks.

Rather than try to attempt this manually, Town Planning Director Dave Genaway supplied his team with GPs handheld computers to locate, log and sync all assets into a centralized GISdatabase. He also standardized on hardware, applications and data standards, so outside vendors, who are constantly in the field, can contribute to and update the database. The outcome — unmatched visibility into town infrastructure — has created tremendous unexpected benefits, not the least of which is an increased bond rating and the ability to draft a comprehensive, targeted plan to attract American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus dollars.

Genaway has also given access to the GPs information in the database to the entire planning department staff through a web portal, allowing them to answer critical questions about zoning. “Anyone seeking to comply with building regulations has to know about zoning, and now, if a constituent calls, no less than 50 people have access to their answers,” he says.

5. Smartphones

The Memphis Police Department deployed HTC Touch Pro smartphones to 1,200 of its patrolmen to dramatically improve the quality and speed of field paperwork. But shortly after issuing the high-powered smartphones that officers use to query federal, state and local crime databases simultaneously, Technology manager major James Harvey saw a need for improvement.

Some officers complained that the display and keys were too small, and as a result officers were submitting reports with shorter narratives and several typographical errors. Rather than rolling back the smartphones, Harvey purchased an eight-inch portable monitor and keyboard station that connects directly to the smartphone via USB or Bluetooth.

That simple add-on to his mobile investment has resulted in impressive returns. For instance, officers can use the smartphone/terminal combo to fill out and submit paperwork such as arrest warrants and auto theft reports from the field in less than a half hour, complete with images they’ve taken with the smartphone’s camera. “This technology makes everything a lot less cumbersome and much faster for the officers,” Harvey says. The field reports, which are delivered via cellular connections, are now available to personnel in three minutes rather than three days.

A Helping Hand

Here’s a sampling of technologies that can aid field work:

Pen Barcode Scanners: Unitech MS120 Barcode Scanner, Wasp Technologies WWR2900

GIS: DeLorme Map; Microsoft Virtual Earth; Oracle Spatial

Tablet PCs: Fujitsu LifeBook T2020, T4220 and T5010 Tablet PCs; Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet 7762, X200 Tablet 7449; Nokia N810 Internet Tablet; Panasonic Toughbook TouchScreen PC Version, CF-19

GPS: DeLorme Earthmate GPS LT-40; Garmin GPS 72, GPSMAP 76Cx, Mobile 10 for smartphones, nüvi 205W, nüvi 265WT, nüvi 855Magellan RoadMate 1412; TomTom ONE 130 All-In-One Portable Navigator, GO 720 All-in-One Portable Navigator

Smartphones: HTC Touch Diamond, Touch Pro; Nokia E63, E71, N85; Palm Treo Pro; Research In Motion BlackBerry Bold 9000; Samsung Rant SPH-m540; Sony Ericsson P1i, XPERIA X1

Project Pointers

Try these tips to extend the value of your mobile deployment.

• Put work into the project upfront. Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority’s Nathaniel Rafalski brought on two college interns full time to barcode infrastructure, thereby populating the database with enough assets to make the project meaningful.

• Think of other ways to enhance the data you’re collecting. The Memphis Police Department uses federal, state and local crime databases and registries to backfill forms generated via smartphones. A few clicks automatically input this information, saving time and avoiding clerical errors.

• Repurpose the information you collect. The town of Islip’s Dave Genaway has found that he can use the GPS and GIS data his team has gathered for its asset management project to answer mission-critical land use and zoning questions.

• Always think of your next step. While the Mecklenburg EMS Agency’s Barry Bagwell is excited about the progress the emergency transport organization has made by using tablet PCs, he wants to ultimately have a single digital record for each patient and deploy business intelligence tools.

Chris Crisman
Jul 07 2009