Helping hand

'There are a fairly significant number of working hours saved by using the handheld devices,' USPS' Sam Pulcrano says as he demonstrates the handheld's inspection applications at the service's Merrifield, Va., distribution center.

Olivier Douliery

USPS arms safety inspectors with iPaqs running homegrown apps

Postal Service managers can look across 39,000 facilities and spot dangers to employees and customers.

By spending the last two years automating its safety inspection process, USPS has made work easier for its 600 safety inspectors. It also has opened a view into post offices and processing centers that managers never had before, said Samuel Pulcrano, USPS' manager of safety performance management.

'For an organization our size, the safety inspection documents would remain at the local level,' Pulcrano said. 'There would be no way to conduct any sort of analysis, and the entire hard-copy process was so labor-intensive, it was all we could just to get it done.'

That's changed now that USPS has equipped inspectors with 550 Compaq iPaq 3850 handheld PCs to collect and analyze data.

The automated inspection program, which the service started in fall 2001 and took fully live earlier this year, lets inspectors fill out templates on the iPaqs and upload the information to a Web-friendly database.

Safety inspectors used to make notes on paper and key them into three separate databases. The new system integrates those databases. 'We identified common hazards, created a checklist and prepopulated the language needed to fill out the forms,' Pulcrano said. 'We had to customize the information only in special circumstances.'

The handhelds run two applications'Safety Inspections and Program Evaluation'built by a team of in-house and contract programmers and copyrighted by the Postal Service, said Clark Spencer, program manager for systems development at the Logistics Management Institute of McLean, Va., USPS' contractor for the project.

The development team'made up of 17 USPS and LMI systems analysts and engineers, programmers, functional specialists and project managers'crafted the apps in Microsoft Embedded Visual Basic at an LMI facility in Bel Air, Md. Before fielding the apps and the accompanying reporting system, the team tested them at the Postal Service's National Data Center in Eagan, Minn.

The handhelds use Microsoft Pocket Access as the mobile data store, Spencer said. This feature is transparent to the users. Pocket Access is just a temporary holding pen for the data until it's uploaded to an Oracle8i database. The Oracle8i database resides on a Compaq ProLiant server running Microsoft Windows 2000 at the Eagan data center.

The central report system, which uses Microsoft Internet Information Services running on the ProLiant, makes the inspection data available to users throughout the Postal Service.

Each iPaq, which runs the Microsoft Pocket PC 2002 operating system, has 64M of RAM, a full-color screen and a 56-Kbps flash modem. 'We looked at clamshell laptops, tablet PCs and other handheld devices, but the iPaq was by far the best,' Spencer said. 'It was small enough to fit in an inspector's pocket when climbing ladders or working in a small area, but also had better battery life, and the screens were easy to read.'

Inspectors fill out information in seven categories and 18 subcategories, and make notes on deficiencies they find at facilities. The inspectors then upload the data to the main report repository using the IIS app's Web front end.

Track problems

To get reports, managers access the Web application's interface, which was built using Active Server Pages.

Postal officials can analyze facilities nationwide or by district or region, Pulcrano said. Through the Postal Service intranet, facility and regional managers track deficiencies that need correcting.

'Headquarters can look at different types of deficiencies across the region or country,' Spencer said. 'This lets them know who may need more training or how long it takes to fix potential hazards.'

USPS' largest facilities range from 300 to 3,000 employees and from 500,000 to 1 million square feet, Pulcrano said. The Postal Service evaluates smaller facilities annually and larger ones twice a year, he said.

'There are a fairly significant number of working hours saved by using the handheld devices,' Pulcrano said. 'There were so many hours spent typing handwritten notes and inputting data that we will not have to do anymore because of the new system.'

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