Tackling Wildlife Licensing in North Carolina

It was an oft-repeated scene: A North Carolina wildlife department officer would ask for someone's fishing or hunting license, and the answer would be, "Well, I have one, but I just forgot to bring it with me. Can't you check in Raleigh?" At that point, the officer would be forced to issue a citation, saddling the person with a court date, even if he actually had a valid license. There was no way of accessing the state's license records because they were stored in remote paper files that were too cumbersome to navigate quickly.

Not only did the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) not have an easy way of determining who held licenses, it routinely took six weeks for the agency to receive fees from license sales and 90 days for boat registration renewals to be processed. Meanwhile, wildlife service agents were complaining about the paperwork. But all that has changed now that the WRC has traded in the old system for an electronic database as part of a five-year, $8 million contract with Electronic Data Systems Corp.

Today, the state's 1,100 wildlife service agents who operate bait and tackle shops or work in sporting goods stores use point-of-sale units to issue licenses on demand. Each POS unit stores all license sales information during the day, then calls into the WRC's Raleigh office at night and downloads the data. By the next day, the state's database of license-holders is up-to-date. And each week, the WRC receives an electronic funds transfer from each of the agent accounts.

Now when someone claims to have a license but can't produce it, the wildlife officer can radio into the WRC's communications center, where a clerk will query the database to find out if the claim is true. The whole process probably takes about 30 seconds. "From a law enforcement perspective, it's been working exceptionally well. It's much advanced over what we had," said WRC enforcement Col. Roger LeQuire.

"It's secure, it's convenient, and it's popular with the public," added Richard Hamilton, assistant director for the WRC. "We have very few problems. We get our money every week, we don't have bad checks, and we hardly have any overdrafts. This system takes care of itself."

Indeed, public popularity may be important for North Carolina and other states. With hunting and fishing license sales down across the country, but with some federal environmental program funding tied to the number of license-holders in each state, agencies want to make obtaining and maintaining licenses as convenient as possible.

Only a few states, including Michigan and Texas, have statewide automated license systems in place. But many more are following suit, according to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "There are a large number of states that are interested," said Larry McSwain, chairman of the IAFWA's committee on automated wildlife data systems. "Over the next decade, we'll probably see a slow movement toward automation in every state."

North Carolina began work on its system in 1996, piloting a few POS units in the WRC's main office. In 1997, the system added vessel registrations. And over the past year, in a staggered rollout, the 800 agents who issue hunting and fishing licenses switched to the electronic system. During that time, two teams of trainers from the WRC and EDS traveled the state to train agents and "talk up" the benefits of the system.

Tweaking the System

So far, the WRC has reduced its costs to the tune of $500,000 a year by getting license fees more quickly and by avoiding pre-printing and shipping of licenses. Since the new system was implemented, there has been no significant downtime, and the problems have been small.

"It's been a process of tweaking to get the best possible data we can," said Janice Underwood, the agency's MIS manager. For example, the WRC recently began requiring agents to enter names and addresses-along with the customary driver's license numbers-into the POS terminals to increase the accuracy of data because the driver's license numbers that were keyed in didn't always match the state's driver's license database.

Underwood heads the technical staff, which came on board only after system implementation was under way. Not having staff present earlier turned out to be problem, Underwood said, because the WRC had to rely solely on EDS for advice. "We had no one in-house who knew [Microsoft Corp.'s] Windows NT or SQL 6.5," she said. "From my perspective, that's not a good way to approach it. Sometimes we agreed to modifications that we didn't really understand, or we would spend money on something that had little benefit to us."

As a small example, she said that the WRC staff agreed to having handwritten questionnaire answers scanned, but it would have been more efficient to key them in. "EDS did what we asked them to do, but it was our responsibility to know that was not a good application for that kind of technology," she said. Technical staff also could have helped make the contract with EDS more clearly worded about who was responsible for certain operational issues, Underwood said.

Now, in addition to Underwood, the WRC has a network manager, a database administrator, two programmers, an operations position for handling printing and job processing, and a user support person. The agency also has fewer clerical positions since the shift from paper to electronic files.

Overall, the new Customer Support System appears to be working well. Larry Rollins, owner of Carolina Fishing and Trains in Hickory, is not happy about the recent requirement that names and addresses be entered into the POS unit, but he is pleased with the system. He said it was easy to learn and that there was much less paperwork and no hassles over the funds due the agency.

"We handle a lot of transactions with very few problems," the WRC's Hamilton said. Asked if he would have done anything differently in implementing the system, he said, "We just would have done it sooner."

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at vickiwhite@xtalwind.net.

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Automated Licensing Catches On

According to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, 10 states have automated their license systems, six have awarded contracts to do so, and several more have issued requests for proposals. While Electronic Data Systems Corp. provided systems in North Carolina and Michigan, other companies active in the license automation business include Compaq Computer Corp., Envoy Corp. and BTG Inc.

Larry McSwain, assistant director of Georgia's wildlife resources division, said his state's store-and-forward point-of-sale system began operating in March and was provided under a $2.6 million contract with Compaq. Georgia, along with several other states, has an arrangement with Bass Pro Shops (www.basspro.com) to sell licenses over a toll-free number available around the clock. Buyers are issued a temporary confirmation number that they show enforcement officers when asked for a license. A printed license is mailed in 24 to 48 hours.

"The purchaser is licensed immediately, which is a tremendous feature. Then you're on your way to your fishing or hunting spot," McSwain said. The telephone licensing system also is available in Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Idaho. Idaho transactions also can be handled on the Internet. Georgia licenses also are available on the World Wide Web through a company called Permit.com (www.permit.com). Like Bass Pro Shops, the company charges a handling fee.

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have formed a consortium to cut automation costs. They are looking into the possibility of issuing a joint request for proposal, said Loy Fulford, chairman of the consortium and chief of information systems for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The group welcomes participation from other states and is in the early organizational stages.

- Vicki White

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How It Works

To issue and print license and vessel registrations, wildlife service agents use VeriFone Inc.'s Omni 490 transaction terminals, Eltron International Inc.'s TLP2242 thermal printers and a VeriFone P250 receipt printer. Each point-of-sale (POS) unit is programmed with a specific time to dial toll-free into the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's Raleigh office to download the day's sales data. Each call lasts about 30 seconds, with all 1,100 POS units calling in between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The phone traffic is handled by 50 incoming phone lines.

Wildlife service agents receive weekly electronic funds transfer reports that indicate their volume of sales. Agents have 48 hours to call the WRC if there are any discrepancies. The state debits each agent's office bank account weekly.

"A key point with the POS units is that they are store-and-forward vs. online," said Tony Payton, who oversees the project for EDS. "The store-and-forward [aspect] has a real benefit in that it allows the agents to sell the licenses and collect the data without having a dedicated phone line back to Raleigh."

For some transactions, such as boat registration renewals or replacement of lost licenses, the POS unit can phone into the WRC database while the customer is waiting. The combination of store-and-forward with online capabilities, "really provides the best

of both worlds," said Janice Underwood, the agency's MIS manager. The WRC also can communicate with agents through the POS units-calling them with informational bulletins about changes in types of licenses, for example.

At the WRC's end, the data is handled by nine Compaq Computer Corp. servers with Microsoft Corp's. Windows NT 4.0 and running Microsoft's SQL 6.5 database management software. Agency-specific applications were built with Sybase Inc.'s PowerBuilder 6.0 and Microsoft's Visual C++ Version 5.0. The main server for the data downloads is a Compaq ProLiant 7000. The vessel registration data is stored on an IBM Corp. 9672 mainframe.

- Vicki White

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