Fueling Success

Florida Department of Environmental Protection implements award-winning field inspection system.

by / January 25, 2007
It's Patrick Higgins' job to help keep Florida's drinking water safe. As a project manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Waste Management, Higgins and his employees are in charge of monitoring and inspecting all the petroleum storage systems in the state.

Higgins has around 100 contracted employees, who inspect all the state's retail gas stations and any other regulated petroleum storage tank. The job is challenging enough with only 100 or so inspectors, but doing the inspections on paper was even tougher. Thanks to the Panasonic Toughbook 18, however, those duplicative, tedious days of paper-based inspections are over.

With the Toughbooks, inspectors have necessary information at their fingertips and no longer waste numerous man-hours on data entry at the office.

Previously inspectors wrote everything on paper, and when they returned to the office, they filed a copy of the report, sent a copy to the appropriate district for contractor payment and then entered the information into a database, requiring 2,200 man-hours per month.

"It was killing us," Higgins recalled. "We weren't able to respond as quickly to the regulation aspect. A lot of times, people don't understand that as regulators, we not only have a responsibility to the public, but we have a responsibility to the regulated community as well. We're there to help them get into compliance and stay in compliance."

On the job site, employees look at fuel storage equipment to first see if it is the correct kind of equipment. Next, employees check to see if the equipment is installed and maintained properly. It is not difficult to imagine the trouble an improperly installed or poorly maintained fuel storage tank might cause. Inspectors are also looking for leak detection devices as well as following up on whether owners are maintaining their discharge liability insurance. These compliance inspections were vital, yet cumbersome.

Now, Higgins said, his inspectors can perform their duties on site and with dramatically increased efficiency. If a storage tank owner is in violation of Florida code, inspectors can print out a noncompliance letter in seconds. Thanks to built-in wireless capabilities, inspectors can crosscheck against a list of approved storage equipment to ensure the facility has the right equipment in place, and they can copy and paste data from a library database into their reports. Inspectors can also complete reports at the facility and eliminate a trip back to the office. Storage tank owners can get a complete, printed report while the inspector is on site.

Higgins said his department looked at many solutions to replace the paper-based system they were eager to be rid of. Higgins wanted an "office in a box" that gave inspectors everything they needed from the office in the field. One feature that was a must was the ability for inspectors to cross-check a library of codes and rules on site instead of having to travel back to the office. Wireless communication coupled with reliability all in a ruggedized package, that was the goal. After examining a number of handhelds and laptops, Higgins found that only Panasonic's line of Toughbooks delivered the tools he needed.

"We looked at the Toughbook 18, which is the tablet-laptop combination," said Higgins. "And that really met all of our needs right there. That's really the one we wanted. Because there was a keyboard and then it could be flipped around to be used as a tablet, you could utilize the Windows OS, the handwriting recognition and some of the other things. It'd be handy to have out in the field. It gave us a lot more flexibility. Plus we could add all these other things that we needed to have in the computer to give us that 'office in the box' we needed.

"There are a lot of computers that could have done this, but those are nonruggedized. Our inspectors are carrying these things out in the field. They're laying them down on concrete. They do occasionally drop them. They're exposed to the elements, so we went with the ruggedized Toughbooks. And it's really worked out well. It has met all of our needs."

Completed reports are also immediately uploaded into the department database, making review of employee work a snap for supervisors. It also significantly simplified end-of-the-month reporting. Instead of poring over pages of handwritten reports, Higgins and his staff can quickly analyze automatically generated reports in minutes.

"It has been just a giant leap forward in productivity and consistency," said Higgins. "Florida's a big state, and we want our contractors to be consistent. The program's designed so everyone is asking the same questions. So you could take the computer and you could be working in key West, and you could take that same computer and give it to somebody, and they could do the same inspection in Pensacola in a different facility and everything would be exactly the same."

Higgins said the Toughbooks have helped cut costs and improve efficiency. The printing of thousands and thousands of forms every year is gone, he said. The cost of shipping those forms from the counties to the districts is gone. The cost of archiving the huge number of boxes every year is gone. And the software is designed to deliver the completed inspection automatically, so other than printing out an inspection in the field to give the operator, he added, it truly is paperless.

The results have garnered Higgins and his staff recognition and even awards from the state. Twice Higgins' team won the Davis Productivity Award. The award, presented by Florida Tax Watch, is given to government agencies that excel at saving taxpayer money.