EPA shortens the paper trail

Inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency's Emergency Response Division are most valuable when they're in the field checking oil storage facilities for problems, not when they're in the office in front of a PC. But that's exactly where many inspectors find themselves, sometimes for hours at a time, as they type the information they've written on paper inspection checklists into the agency's database.

"The collection of data and input requirements had become so burdensome that it affected the number of inspections we could do," said Steve Canalog, federal on-scene coordinator in the EPA's Emergency Response Office in the Superfund Division. "We are so backlogged that we have clerical staff, inspectors, everybody keying in data."

But in a few weeks, the dozen or so inspectors in the EPA's region 9 division, where Canalog works, will begin using Palm Inc. personal digital assistants to collect data in the field and enter it into the database. The goal is to free them to conduct more inspections and help get the information to EPA managers more quickly.

With the initial application development work now complete, Canalog said the next step will be to let inspectors in the field access data stored in agency servers using a PDA and a wireless network connection. But, like many organizations that are adding handheld computers to their regular enterprise systems, the EPA has to work out some sticky security issues before it enables untethered access to agency data.

As long as four years ago, Canalog and his colleagues realized that the emerging portable computing devices might offer a way out of the paper checklist and data-entry grind. But a survey of the market at the time was not very encouraging, Canalog said.

The most common products were pen computers, which were typically flat, rectangular boxes with big screens that the user wrote on with a special pen. Besides being cumbersome to carry, the devices cost more than $3,000 each and didn't seem durable enough to withstand the bumps and scrapes common during field use, he said.

A short while later, less-expensive options emerged, such as the Palm PDA and handheld devices that ran Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system. EPA officials evaluated several handheld devices and developed a very basic application to run on each platform.

As the evaluation grew more complex, the EPA brought in a systems integrator to help (the firm was later acquired by Vienna, Va.-based Indus Corp., but the California team working with the EPA has not changed).

During the testing, EPA officials quickly learned that a sizable gap existed between some vendors' claims and their products' capabilities. "The early CE-based devices were not nearly as stable as they needed to be," Canalog said. Stability didn't appear to be a problem with the Palm operating system, and it seemed to have more development tools and applications available than the CE platform, he said.

Some special EPA requirements also complicated the picture. In a move to make its disparate data management systems work better together, the agency required that its developers use Oracle Corp. software to build any new databases. However, Oracle's product for synchronizing data in the handheld environment — Personal Oracle Lite — had two strikes against it.

"We were having problems writing data [from the handheld] back to the Oracle database" on the office server, said Elizabeth Chang, a programmer with Indus working on the EPA project. "It also would have required the EPA to purchase a new server and another copy of the Oracle server license."

The EPA eventually decided to use the Palm OS as its platform. And for the synchronization server, it selected ScoutSync software from Aether Systems Inc. ScoutSync could run on a Windows NT-based server that the EPA already owned, so new hardware did not have to be purchased. Indus was given the job of developing the inspection checklist application that would run on the Palm devices and the synchronization system that would handle the data exchange between the handhelds and the office database.

Indus used CodeWarrior for Palm OS from Metrowerks Inc. to develop the Palm applications, which were modeled on two of the paper-based checklists that EPA inspectors use when evaluating an oil storage site — one called the Facility Response Plan and the other called the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure.

To start using the application, inspectors hook their Palm devices into a synchronization cradle connected to their desktop PCs. The ScoutSync server retrieves some basic data from the EPA Oracle database, such as a list of facilities to inspect and contact information, and writes it to the Palm.

Out in the field, inspectors work through the checklist on the Palm by tapping through screen-based menus and can even write notes as needed. Once back in the office, the inspectors reconnect the PDA to the desktop PC and use the synchronization server to update the Oracle database.

By using the Palm device to eliminate the repetitive data-entry step, Canalog expects that the region's office can do 20 percent to 25 percent more inspections each year and reduce the burden on the administrative staff. That increase in productivity should quickly offset the approximately $150,000 spent to develop the application and buy the software licenses, he said.

Though it won't be easy, the next step is to give inspectors in the field direct access to the database via a wireless network. "If an inspector comes across an old waste facility, he could check the site's compliance history and make a rapid determination on the situation," Canalog said.

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