Palmtops Rescue L.A. Fire Data

Every spring, the Los Angeles Fire Department heads into the hills to root out excess dry brush and other combustible materials that can spark Southern California's seasonal wildfires. Each time, the brush collectors unearth clues that could lead to fire prevention.

Unfortunately, the information often went unused because it was sitting in a box, waiting to be entered into a computer. "We had cardboard boxes stacked up all over the place," said Jack Shafer, the LAFD's senior systems analyst. "The captain, even the chief inspector, when they had time would grab some of the reports and input them."

That all changed this spring when the LAFD handed its Brush Task Force 50 Symbol Palm Terminal 1500s from Symbol Technologies. The task force will use the palmtop computers to record findings from inspections of more than 180,000 properties in the Mountain Fire District. Previously, the inspectors recorded fire code violations and potential hazards on paper, a process that often took up to 40 percent of their working day.

With the SPT 1500, an inspector will have an electronic inventory of all the properties to be inspected as well as a list of standard violations that can be transmitted across a wide-area network to the Fire Prevention Office. The device also stores previous violation information on each property.

"Now, we're tracking how many [properties] are inspected as opposed to just how many are [violations]," Shafer said.

Use of the SPT 1500 also frees up time for the inspector. "If it lets us inspect more properties...then there's less chance of people and property getting burned up. The bottom line is that it will save lives."

- Heather Hayes

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Orange County Shops Web-Only

In January, Orange County, Calif., launched a World Wide Web-based purchasing system that requires companies to sell basic commodities to the county online. Six months later, more than 2,000 vendors have registered with the system, one of the most advanced e-procurement systems in the country.

The Orange County system requires vendors to register on the site, select or update the goods they wish to sell and receive solicitations automatically via e-mail. After getting the bids online, the system sorts the bids by lowest price and prepares a spreadsheet from which the buyer can choose a vendor. The system even e-mails the results of the bid to all bidders.

"It works slick; our buyers love it," said Leo Crawford, Orange County's chief executive officer. "Finally they can quit being administrative assistants and be buyers."

Before the Web-based system, the county limited the number of vendors responding to a solicitation to 10 to 15 because workers had difficulty handling the volume of paperwork from companies that wanted to compete for county business. "We recently [solicited for] laser printers and had 70 bidders," Crawford said. "We couldn't have done that with the paper system."

That kind of competition makes the economics of going Web-only pretty persuasive. "The actual cost of doing the project is moderate, and the benefit in terms of less time buyers spend on administrative functions makes an extremely compelling case," said Rob Hupp, vice president of American Management Systems Inc., the primary architect of the system.

The system, which runs on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and SQL Server, is tied into the county's e-mail and financial systems. To be able to support this type of application, an organization has to have an Internet and intranet infrastructure with firewall security.

"There are issues in putting up these e-commerce applications primarily with data security," Hupp warned. "If you don't have the technology infrastructure, and your system is flooded with vendors, it will cause problems."

- Meg Misenti

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Point-and-Click Justice

Citizens of Alameda County, Calif., can access information on civil cases via a World Wide Web link to the county's new justice information system. Searching by case number or calendar date, people can read summary details of a case, including the names of parties involved, orders issued or judgments rendered. Next for the county: the ability to read and download case documents online.

The Web system is part of a countywide justice information system that has been under way since 1996. Last month, it was installed in the last of six county courthouses. Now nearly complete, the system houses more than 150,000 civil cases, tracks all case filings and case-related activities, automates scheduling, manages calendars, collects fees, and issues notices, orders and other court documents. The county plans to add criminal and traffic cases in the future.

The system is based on those at the top of the court hierarchy. "What makes our system different from others out there is a lot of our functions are designed around providing support for our judges," said Cielo Keller, the Alameda County Court's information systems director. Judges retrieve electronic files and view images online. The system supports real-time minutes-taking and lets judges review cases and make rulings online. In essence, it has transformed the work of more than 200 judges, attorneys and clerks in the county.

The system even has built-in selection lists on possible rulings for judges. "Ruling types for different types of motions make it very easy for judges to render rulings," Keller said.

- Meg Misenti

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To the Techno-Savvy Go the Spoils

Jesse Ventura -the former professional wrestler turned Minnesota governor -helped swing the election as an independent candidate by using World Wide Web sites, Internet chat rooms and other information technology tools to win the support of a large majority of Minnesota voters between the ages of 18 and 25.

That should send a strong signal to next year's campaigners, in the opinion of Utah state Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell (D), who spoke at the recent Intergovernmental Technology Conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Elected officials not plugged into technology risk being voted out of office, Howell said. "I think the election in 2000 will be the biggest election with technology [as a factor] that we've ever seen," he said.

For proof, consider that two early front-runners in the 2000 race for president-Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R)-"are both right on it," said Howell, referring to the candidates' level of techno-savvy.

- John Stein Monroe

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311 Helps Chicago's Finest

Chicago's non-emergency phone system is easing traffic on the city's 911 system, freeing police to pursue more serious offenses faster. More than 1,000 residents a day dial 311 to report such problems as abandoned vehicles, street light problems, pot holes or graffiti. Calls also include asking about city services or filing a police report or complaint.

While the calls to 311 represent just a fraction of the 7,000 non-emergency calls the city receives each day via seven-digit city numbers, use of 311 is growing fast. During a severe winter storm in January, the non-emergency system received 64,000 calls over four days, far greater than the normal amount. "It kept our 911 system from being inundated with non-emergency calls," said Gregory Bishop, managing deputy director of the Office of Emergency Communications and project manager for the 311 system.

Chicago has 50 workers staffing the 311 system around the clock. It is tied to the city's 911 system, making it easy to transfer calls between the two centers. The 311 system's high-speed workstations can be used as 911 stations in the event of an large-scale emergency. "The system has been a real boon for police," Bishop said. "One in five police reports are taken over the phone, and [this system] frees them up for more serious offenders."

Several localities, including Washington, D.C.; Houston and Austin, Texas; Phoenix; Los Angeles; and Detroit have looked at Chicago's 311 system. "Not a week goes by where we don't get a call from another municipality," Bishop said.

- Meg Misenti

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