Curbing Government Waste

— December 01, 2006

The City of San Diego's general fund is a pool of money that covers broad city expenses such as public safety, parks and recreation, library services and, among other things, garbage collection for the city's 1.25 million residents.

The Environmental Services Department (ESD) is responsible for the weekly curbside pick up
of garbage to 318,000 homes, the recycling of paper, plastic and glass from 276,000 homes and yard waste pick up from another 150,000 homes, totaling 29 million stops and 500,000 tons of collected waste and recycling each year.

Streamlining these processes was a logistical quagmire, but Nader Tirandazi, assistant to the director of the ESD, was familiar with the recent advances in wireless networks and suspected that better technology could help the city plan more efficient collection routes, which would save the ESD money and free up resources for other city services.

Which is just the sort of technology gameplan that San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders would like to see implemented in more government departments.

When Sanders took office in a special election last year, he inherited a city government with a history of financial mishandling. Sanders' strategy to turn the city around includes Business Process Reengineering, or "going through every function of the city, bringing people to the table and seeing how we can slim down what we do." ESD had the same idea when it began looking into vehicle tracking solutions.

Previous attempts to collect data and analyze system inefficiencies had required ESD to hire workers to drive behind the garbage trucks and count the number of stops each truck made and the number of times the arm on the truck picked up a can and put it back at the curb. When this data was collected it was put into a GIS system in hopes of creating a route optimization tool. But the manually collected data was prone to errors and so slow to be collected that it was ineffectual. And of course, ESD saw the irony in spending more money to hire people to drive around on the garbage trucks' already inefficient routes.

In 2000 ESD rolled out a vehicle monitoring system using an early version of wireless data networks, called CDPD. But the network was slow, not very reliable and only minimal amounts of data could be sent at a time. By 2000, however, carriers were already working to rollout faster, more reliable wireless data networks, and so CDPD was a quickly disappearing option.
Four years later, as technologies improved, ESD began looking again for a wireless truck monitoring system. It had three key criteria developed in part from the last try: coverage, as the wireless network had to reach every corner of the 342.6 square-mile city; network reliability, since the wireless system had to be trusted never to drop data; and suport, since ESD needed to be sure its chosen carrier understood the difference between rolling out a government solution and rolling out an enterprise deployment.

After piloting solutions with several networks, ESD chose to work with Cingular. "Overall, we experienced greater reliability in data transmissions with Cingular," explains Tirandazi. "Because collection vehicles work in the same geographic area each day of the week, we were able to compare reliability while we piloted both Cingular and Verizon networks."

ESD worked with Cingular's (then AT&T's) dedicated government application team to create a GPS/GPRS fleet management system application called Vtrac. "One big mistake people make when designing wireless applications," explains Reed Pangborn, Cingular's director of government sales, "is they try to simplify measures. But when you're trying to extend applications out to the field, you better have security measures in place, redundancies in place, bandwidth issues worked out, all of it. Going in, we understood all of this on the government level."

Cingular's government application team worked out all the necessary details. The solution entails GPS receivers attached to the arms of garbage trucks, recording both when and where the trucks stop as well as how many times per hour the arms go up and down. This data is then sent to ESD's backend system, which funnels the appropriate data into the very viewer-friendly Vtrac application. Field managers in the office now have easily accessible, real-time data on each truck on the road.

Disposing of Inefficiencies
"With the Vtrac program, ESD has transformed the department," says Sanders. "They've saved the city money and expanded services, both of which are priorities for us. It's really important to the people of San Diego to be able to recycle and separate their greens waste, and we want to meet the people's demands."

Sanders says that the Vtrac program is a perfect example of his campaign promises to "streamline city operations, make government more accountable and make ethics and customer service the foundation of a new City Hall culture."

With the Vtrac program in place, ESD quickly realized it could considerably reduce costs by rerouting 70 percent of the trucks. In the first year, ESD saved nearly $700,000 on operational costs by eliminating 50 routes per week--meaning 900 less miles were being driven and 390 gallons of diesel were saved each day. During this time the ESD was also able to expand its
bi-weekly yard waste collection to an additional 50,000 homes, bringing the total number of yard waste customers up to 200,000.

The reduced mileage on the trucks has also helped save truck maintenance costs. Plus, the application monitors mechanical performance, allowing the equipment division to improve safety with preemptive repairs. This data also enables the city to better predict how many trucks it needs to lease or keep in the fleet, which eventually leads to huge cost savings.

It was also important to the city to save money without laying off employees. "While planning the rerouting, we worked with our Labor Management Advisory Committee to ensure our plans were fair to employees," said Elmer L. Heap Jr., director of the ESD, in a department press release. "We were able to decrease the amount of collection trucks in our fleet without laying off any drivers. Instead, our drivers were reassigned to new routes that were more evenly distributed throughout the week. Our goal behind the entire rerouting project is efficiency, but not at the expense of our employees."

Many drivers were reassigned to the expanded yard waste collections, but ESD was also able to create a dedicated service request team. Previously, when a resident would call with a complaint of missed trash, the city had no way of knowing whether the truck had actually missed the pick-up. As trucks returned to the depot, drivers would be redeployed to pick up the "missed" collection (one factor driving up overtime and vehicle costs). Now, with real-time views of each truck's location (and where the truck has been), fleet managers can send the closest truck or can assure the customer a truck is on its way.

Despite some initial hesitation, drivers have been supportive. "At first, I think a lot of drivers were kind of suspicious about [Vtrac], the whole Big Brother thing," explains Jason Ridgeway, a sanitation driver with the City of San Diego since 1990. "But now you can see that it is not used that way. I think it's a good tool. Supervisors can track the trucks, not to see if you're doing good or bad, but just to know where you're at on your route. It helps us to be more efficient."

Good records of trucks' speeds and whereabouts have also saved the department administrative and legal fees, and at times exonerated drivers suspected of property damage or moving violations. "Lots of times it gets us off the hook," continues Ridgeway. "Someone might call in and claim damage from an accident or that the truck was speeding. We can look it up on GPS and maybe prove that our truck wasn't where they claimed it was at the time, or that the speed was within the limit."

The solution has been so effective at saving money that the City is expanding it to its Metropolitan Wastewater, General Services and Water Departments, increasing the number of enabled vehicles from 250 to 1,100. City officials project that the program will save approximately $10 million over the next decade, while allowing city-enabled departments to expand necessary services. "Savings is a lot more than $10 million," says Tirandazi, "it's about worker and customer satisfaction."

Recycling Resources
For the people of San Diego, keeping the city green is as much about reducing environmental impact as it is saving money. Not only do more efficient routes help keep fuel costs low, but reduced mileage and fuel consumption also decrease nitrous oxide emissions by an estimated 5.2 tons per year and carbon dioxide emissions by 1,068 tons per year. Expanding the yard waste collection program also keeps more materials out of landfills.

ESD also uses the recycling collection information to track resident participation; this information is then used to target marketing to those areas with the lowest participation rates. Targeted efforts help to reduce the amount of marketing materials needed, which saves money on supplies and distribution costs. Plus, targeted efforts have already proved successful: When the city first expanded its greenery collection program, fewer residents participated than expected; ESD sent out direct mailings to residents on the expanded routes, and greenery loads increased by 35 percent.

"Vtrac is really an operational tool," explains Deena Jamieson, an information systems analyst and GIS coordinator with the ESD, "but the data is used for performance measures,
vehicle maintenance issues, customer concerns and so much more."

All of these efforts have contributed to the city's compliance with California State Assembly Bill 939, which called for a 50 percent diversion of waste materials from landfills to recycling programs. San Diego has now exceeded state expectations and is at a 52 percent diversion rate.

Connecting for the Future
Cingular's Pangborn chalks up the success of the deployment to Cingular's understanding of the needs of a government solution. "We had a dedicated government application team that included a dedicated government account manager, a government account executive, a business care manager, data solutions consultants and systems engineers--people who understand the needs unique to city government and who understand the possibilities available with mobile data solutions. Cingular brought the conversation to a higher level."

And Sanders is dedicated to continuing that conversation about how technology can help transform city government to more effectively serve the city's interests. Tirandazi credits the mayor's support of the deployment for its continued expansion. "Although GPS technology was already operational within the City of San Diego prior to Mayor Sanders' assuming office, having his support is essential to city-wide deployment," says Tirandazi. "Not only are City departments encouraged to leverage GPS/AVL technology, but there is an existing infrastructure and a knowledge base that facilitates rapid propagation throughout the city."

The ESD's Vtrac deployment has set a great example for city government by showing the ways that mobile technology can help trim back costs without skimping on public services.

"We'd like to expand technology deployments like this to other parts of the city," says Mayor Sanders. "The fire department, for example, is looking into using technology to better plan evacuation routes and simulating software that can predict how fires will move. With proven systems like [Vtrac] in place we can start to expand similar technologies in departments that have similar needs of getting information into the hands of the workers in field."

San Diego also recently received a grant from Qualcomm for $1 million to update its police force's technology. Some will go toward better wireless technologies to improve service response times by upgrading dispatch options to include GPS systems. New handheld devices will give officers secure, on-the-street access to information and applications that are now available only through laptops or on desktop systems at precincts such as federal, state and local law enforcement data systems. Upgraded devices will also allow officers to transmit information back to headquarters, for better-coordinated investigations.

As a city with such technology-rich resources, Sanders sees San Diego as an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of increasing technology's role in government. "We're starting to learn to take advantage of the fact that we're a high-tech city to trim down dead time and be a more efficient system, " he says. "We're excited about being able to leverage resources within our community. It's wonderful that there are so many folks here who really want to help."//

Teresa von Fuchs, a former staff editor at Mobile Enterprise , now suns herself in Austin, Texas.

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