Nebraska city Palms one off on its employees

'Within 60 seconds I could send a message to every high school in Lincoln saying 'Lock down' if I had to,' Terry Lowe said.

From monitoring fauna and flora to keeping children safe, Lincoln, Neb., handles many core city functions wirelessly with handheld PCs.

Four years ago, the city gave its animal control officers Palm VII handheld computers from palmOne Inc. of Milpitas, Calif. The handhelds connect to the city's IBM Corp. mainframe, which houses rabies vaccination information and tag numbers of all registered pets as well as pets with a record of vicious conduct.

The Palm devices scored a big hit with the animal control officers. 'Everybody took to them,' said Terry Lowe, Lincoln's systems project supervisor, because they were inexpensive'about $300 each'and easy to use.

The police department soon adopted handhelds to look up license plates, warrants, dispatching information and intelligence reports.

City officials found they too could use Palms to access a homegrown address finder'a geographic information system roughly equivalent to software from Mapquest.com Inc. of Denver, a subsidiary of America Online Inc.

For some of Lincoln's public service officers, the devices have prevented litigation. One officer found a car with an outstanding ticket parked at the library while the owner was inside paying the ticket online. The officer mistakenly had the car towed, and the city was held liable for the towing charges. The handhelds have put an end to such scenarios because they show up-to-date ticket status.

Use spreads

The surrounding Lancaster County, Neb., uses handhelds to report noxious weeds. The Sheriff's Department uses Palm Tungsten Cs units to look up criminal histories.

The public can access some of the same data at the city's Web site. Visitors can select updates via either Palm devices or Web-enabled phones.

People can type in tag numbers of lost pets to find their owners, Lowe said. Or they can tap into the emergency dispatch system to see where a fire truck is headed. Other features accessible via handhelds are polling places, property records, city and county employee directories, and interactive street maps.

The city uses a desktop alert system from Digital Information Network LLC of Dallas. Citizens can download the application to their PCs to receive alerts about weather, missing children or 'anything else we deem necessary to send out,' Lowe said. 'Within 60 seconds, I could send a message to every high school in Lincoln saying 'Lock down' if I had to.'

The original Palm VII handhelds are still functional, but many workers are upgrading to Tungsten Ws. The strongest selling point is how much money the devices save the city. 'It's a minimal investment compared with deploying mobile data terminals,' Lowe said. 'I can retrieve the same information but get it faster on a device that costs $300 as opposed to $5,000.'

Some of the handhelds have built-in Kodak PalmPix digital cameras, 'which saves a lot of time,' he said.

The city uses three wireless networks. Tungsten Cs handhelds run on local Ethernets. PalmOne i705 devices connect to a network from Cingular Wireless of Atlanta, and Tungsten Ws use an AT&T Corp. wireless network.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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