They’re not just for business travelers anymore Featured

9:42am EDT July 22, 2002
If you truly want to serve your customers today, you must be connected to the most efficient technology.

The City of Columbus Building Department realized it was falling behind the technology of the times nearly three years ago. That’s when executives there began putting together a plan to make zoning, building inspection, code enforcement and the tracking of building plan reviews a state-of-the art process on both the commercial and residential frontiers.

To do this, the city began using 120 Panasonic laptop computers, cellular modems, printers and digital cameras last September. The Pentium computers are portable, so they can be taken out on job sites — making them a godsend to both the building department and the local building industry due to the more immediate response time and more accurate record keeping allowed by transferring data over the Internet.

“We wanted them to have access to the information out in the field,” says Burell Charity, information system manager for Building and Development Services, who has been the city’s point man in overhauling the inspection and permit process. “We wanted it to be almost as if they were in the office.”

“We definitely feel like it is the future ... having the laptops and information at their fingertips,” says Kathy M. Kerr, deputy director of the city’s Department of Trade and Development, Building and Development Services. “If you’re a builder and you’ve got cement trucks waiting to pour, and you need an inspection ... we need to turn those inspections around as quickly as possible so the building industry can keep moving their projects along. Every day is a lot of money to them.”

In the past, inspectors went to a site and brought back a written report, which was typed into the system by a clerk. That was time-consuming and redundant, causing delays and resulting in the most complaints from the building industry as a whole.

Now, the laptops can record the most vital information in a fraction of the time, and a building inspection that used to be backlogged for a week is handled 98 percent of the time on the same day, according to 12-year veteran Gary Dupler, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning field supervisor.

Equally helpful has been the new means to retrieve a property’s history vs. the antiquated paper trail. Thanks to the sophisticated technology, customers can typically find what they’re looking for with a couple clicks of the mouse, Dupler adds.

Other examples of the streamlined efficiency made possible with laptops are:

  • Plan reviews completed in three weeks or less, instead of in several months.

  • Building permits issued in one or two days, instead of the week it used to take.

Because the laptops are such powerful tracking devices, inspections that sometimes fell through the cracks now have a permanent record of request, Dupler says. And that time savings on both the front and back ends of a project means better productivity from inspectors and cost savings to the customer.

So many choices

Even though computer-chip technology doubles in speed every 18 months and the waterproof, dust proof and drop proof CF-25 laptops were purchased in 1997, Charity says “they’re maintaining their own” against the latest and greatest Pentium processors, which are already two to three generations faster.

But selecting which computers to purchase was only the first of many steps in the two-year journey for Charity to get the division — both internal and external personnel — working off the new Windows-based, open database from the city’s Citrix server at City Hall.

The primary impetus for the upgrade, however, was Y2K.

“Our main [building permit] application sitting on the city’s mainframe wasn’t Y2K compliant,” Charity says. “We decided to go to a custom design so we had the flexibility in-house to maintain the application. The application had to be developed, massaged and cleaned up with a lot of input from staff.”

Still, the system is constantly being fine-tuned, since it runs the entire permitting operation, from intake of information at the front desk to inspections. Implementing checks and balances, and coordinating the multitude of operations they perform, including calculations of fees, was Charity’s biggest priority.

“Delineating the business processes was the most tedious because we do so many things, and they had to be integrated into this one application,” he says. “We still see some refinement ... because we begin to question whether we’re trying to track too much information.”

The city’s budget for the equipment, including 30 laptops for added staff, was $894,488 in 1998, according to Linda Deis, fiscal manager with building and development services. Each laptop cost around $4,000, plus $3,000 for ancillary technology such as Sony Mavica digital cameras, mini Pentax printers, docking stations and Sierra wireless modems, which transmit 19,200 bits of data per second from behind the passenger seat of each truck.

The $600 Sony cameras are not required for every job, but can provide additional documentation if there is a violation or the inspector feels there could be a problem. Up to 25 images can be stored on one 3 1/2-inch diskette and inspectors download images on the hard drive at the office, eliminating extra handling by personnel and creating a magnetic record that can be used in court.

Charity’s decision to buy the eight-pound laptops, which are less prone to damage and not as sensitive to the elements in the magnesium alloy carrying case vs. desktop PCs, made sense in light of the inspectors’ daily regiment.

“Their profession is more or less running around with a hammer and we were concerned about someone dropping the unit,” Charity says.

In addition, the laptops, which sit on a docking station in city trucks during the day, are unplugged from their battery-operated power source after each shift and kept under lock and key to prevent theft.

Skill building

Although the elimination of paper was one of the main goals of the system, Charity admits it’s not easy for some employees to overcome old habits.

“You have people who are trained and used to doing things a certain way, so you still have guys who are keeping paper trails just for comfort,” he says.

In addition, only 25 to 30 percent of the city’s building inspectors were computer literate when the laptops were purchased, Charity says. The 120 inspectors using the laptops now are still learning, he adds.

Because of the discrepancy between experience and technology, Lynn Thompson was hired as a trainer last November to bring everyone up to speed on the Microsoft Office Suite software. Thompson also had to be trained on the new building permit application because of the complexity of the system.

In addition to weekly classroom training, inspectors who needed it were given a five-hour introductory course on the basic operating principles of using Microsoft Word, accessing the Internet, sending and receiving e-mail and charging the battery. Dupler also created a manual to help inspectors enter information specifically for permit operations.

The results

Thanks to enhanced efficiency, clerks now have more time to cross-train in other positions, such as scanning. Kerr hopes that by the end of the year, Columbus City Council will approve an expenditure for an imaging system to scan old documents, putting paper by the wayside.

“Right now, it gets the information in the system faster than in the past, but it’s still not where we need it to be,” Charity says of the building department’s laptop technology. “We’re hoping the next generation will have a hand-held device that can transmit the data directly from the building.”

Forrest Clarke (fclarke17@hotmail.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Columbus.