Handhelds keep USPS managers in touch

'We give them five minutes of training on the devices, and they become experts in an hour.'

'USPS' Bob Otto

Henrik G. de Gyor

Effects of last year's blackout were lessened by the BlackBerry

As the government sharpens its focus on agencies' ability to maintain services in the wake of a disaster, the Postal Service has turned to handheld devices.

The approach got its first real test when the Northeast lost power last August. Postal managers maintained communications using BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, to make sure the mail got through.

'We couldn't get hold of the mail-processing plants because there was no electricity or phone service, but the BlackBerry network worked,' USPS vice president and chief technology officer Robert Otto said.

'We connected with the managers for several hours to figure out when the mail was being dispatched so we could make sure it was moving.'

Few blackout effects

While many government and private operations were paralyzed in the darkness, the Postal Service kept nearly all of its schedules.

'When you have an emergency, you must be able to contact your people,' Otto said. 'We push 125,000 messages a day through the network.'

Although USPS is still developing continuity-of-operations plans for the BlackBerry devices, Otto said, the blackout showed their potential.

USPS is one of many agencies turning to handhelds, and not just BlackBerrys, for continuity of operations and planning, said Anthony LeBlanc, RIM vice president for government solutions. 'Using wireless devices for continuity of operations is the killer application this year for the federal government,' he said.

USPS finished an 18-month implementation of handhelds in November. Almost 2,800 senior managers now use the BlackBerrys fore-mail and to tap into six applications for approving funding and travel requests, Otto said.

USPS estimated the devices are saving the agency $360,000 a year.

Otto said the service set up its BlackBerry infrastructure with help from MCI Inc. Seventeen servers in four locations support the BlackBerry apps and network.

More apps coming

Information exchanged over the network is protected by the Triple Data Encryption Standard, said Mark Guibert, RIM's vice president for corporate marketing.

USPS next will move its continuity-of-operations plans from paper onto the devices. Otto said additional BlackBerry applications are in the works for contact lists, emergency and disaster recovery plans, building floor plans, and media contact and response systems.

'Every application has to be modified' to run in Java, Otto said. 'We have to strip out any illustrations and make sure everything uses text as much as possible.'

BlackBerrys have become so popular that USPS managers are trading in their cell phones and pagers for the handhelds, he said.

'We give them five minutes of training, and they become experts in an hour,' Otto said. 'The real value is to give managers wireless connectivity so they can get instantaneous messages and awareness of operations.'


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