Clark County uses GPS to track employees

Devices in vehicles aimed at improving efficiency and worker safety, trimming costs

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

With a glance at a computer screen, Bob Moag sees more than two dozen dots colored red, yellow and green that represent maintenance vehicles scattered around Clark County.

"Here's my crew, right here," said Moag, a facility maintenance specialist who dispatches workers to county-owned or -leased properties, including the Clark County Courthouse, Clark County Jail, Clark County Center for Community Health, Clark County Fairgrounds, Camas-Washougal Municipal Court, the 78th Street Heritage Farm and Clark County Sheriff's Office precincts.

Red dots mean a vehicle that has been stopped for more than an hour, yellow dots mean a vehicle has been stopped for less than an hour and green dots mean a vehicle is in motion. If Moag wants, he can see how fast the vehicle is going. If the vehicle has been stopped for longer than a traffic light, he can tell whether the driver is in violation of the county's no-idling policy.

If an emergency repair call comes in, Moag can tell in an instant which employee would be the most efficient choice to respond.

Tracking county vehicles using satellite technology isn't new, but until recently it has been confined to the Clark County Sheriff's Office. The CCSO has approximately 125 vehicles, which, for at least five years, have been equipped with global positioning system technology through Clark Regional Emergency Service Agency's computer-aided dispatch system, said Sgt. Fred Neiman.

That includes the sedan used by Sheriff Garry Lucas, the only elected county official who drives a publicly owned vehicle home each night.

But as part of the county's reconfiguration efforts to ensure a balanced budget, when expenses are rising faster than revenues at about a rate of 2 percent a year, the use of tracking devices has gone beyond police cruisers and will continue to expand. A pilot

project started last year with 29 facilities vehicles in the General Services department, where employees receive more than 9,600 maintenance requests a year. Those include everything from fixing a broken toilet to repairing a CRESA radio tower to painting over graffiti in a park.

Mark Wilsdon, the county's risk manager, told county commissioners on May 30 that the number of completed service calls increased immediately following the installation of GPS devices. The savings in fuel costs per vehicle, because workers were taking more efficient routes, match the monthly $35 operating cost per vehicle, Wilsdon said.

He told commissioners that software and hardware costs between $300 and $425 per vehicle with an installation cost ranging from $140 to $280.

But long term, it should be worth it, Wilsdon said. While acknowledging that it's difficult to estimate how much money the county will save, he estimated the tracking devices will help avoid paying up to $126,400 a year in property and casualty claims and up to $37,000 in workers' compensation claims.

In coming up with those numbers, he said he calculated the cost of the county having to pay out if an employee gets in an accident and the county's found liable for damages because the employee had been speeding.

The tracking devices will be beneficial for smaller claims, too, he told commissioners. He said when a complaint comes in that a county vehicle, for example, kicked up a rock that cracked a driver's windshield, he'll be able to look at the records to see if a county vehicle was even in the alleged spot.

Wilsdon said people often confuse Clark County vehicles with ones belonging to Clark Regional Wastewater District and Clark Public Utilities.

At the sheriff's office, Neiman said the tracking devices have been able to back up deputies against allegations of speeding.

As for workers' compensation claims, Wilsdon said a manager will be able to tell if a vehicle has been out for too long and there may be a problem, which will be particularly helpful when the employee is in north county areas with poor cellphone reception or if the employee has been injured and can't use a radio.

While the savings probably cannot be quantified to count under the county's reconfiguration process, Wilsdon told commissioners that the tracking devices are a useful, enterprising solution that appears to be cost effective and savings will grow as claims are avoided.

The tracking trend has spread to the Department of Community Development, including vehicles for fire marshals, building inspectors and animal control officers.

In all, about 60 vehicles — sedans, trucks, vans and SUVs — are equipped with GPS Insight. The device has a diagnostic function, so the county can tell immediately when vehicles need to be repaired.

Later this year, a different type of tracking system called Fleettracker will be installed in 108 passenger vehicles and heavier equipment — street sweepers and snow plows — in the Public Works Department. That system involves more development costs, mostly the time of Bob Poole, the county's Geographic Information Systems manager, and will be an internal system rather than the Internet-based GPS Insight. It will be $500 cheaper per vehicle to operate, however, than GPS Insight, said Pete Capell, director of Public Works.

Among the benefits, Capell said, are that the employees who operate street sweepers and snow plows will no longer have to manually report which streets they've cleaned and cleared. The information will be automatically loaded into the county's database.

"Our needs, with all of our equipment, are different than General Services, which just has their fleet of vans and pickups," Capell said.

Mark McCauley, director of General Services, said after he sees how Fleettracker works he'll consider switching over when the contract ends with GPS Insight.

'Big Brother' concerns

On the day last summer that the tracking started in the facilities department, Wilsdon said two employees were to go from where the vehicles are kept behind the Clark County Public Service Center across the street to the Clark County Courthouse. Employees had been notified the tracking system was in effect.

What should have been a two-minute trip took 45 minutes, and managers watched on a monitor as the employees first drove to get coffee and doughnuts.

The employees were disciplined but are still with the county, Wilsdon said.

Capell, whose fleet is driven by union employees, said there has been some apprehension about the "Big Brother" aspect of real-time monitoring.

"We've put out a memo to the union that's not our intent," Capell said. "We're not going to have people monitoring everybody, every minute of the day."

Still, the county does receive complaints about county employees driving faster than the speed limit or "being in a place they have no business being," Capell said. With the tracking system, "we can easily verify that in a minute."

After the Public Works vehicles are equipped, there will still be 119 county vehicles without tracking devices.

Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said he'd be interested in using the devices.

"Since my employees must physically inspect every property in the county they often go down long dirt roads not knowing what may be waiting at the end of the road or driveway," he wrote in an email. "We make sure they check out and in every day but if one did not check in or were in danger we would not know exactly where to find them."

Some appraisers were provided this year with radios, Van Nortwick said, which maintenance workers and public works employees do carry.

Moag said the tracking devices keep his workers aware of the fact he can check up on them at any time.

"If you aren't doing anything wrong, then you don't have anything to worry about," Moag said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.