Training for Hand-Helds
These Folks Can Teach New and Old Dogs New Tricks
It wasn't an optimal learning environment. They were on a busy city street contending with all the noise of an urban setting. Six officers in uniform, huddled around a parking meter, their attention divided between the traffic, the pedestrians and what their trainer, Darcy Rangen, was telling them. Each of them was learning how to write parking tickets and forward that data in "real time" with a hand-held computer.
"Standing on the street, spending an inordinate time around a meter didn't seem conducive to learning," recalled Rangen.
To create a better atmosphere, Rangen came up with a simple solution. Using a felt pen, he drew a familiar downtown street on a poster-sized piece of paper. On the "street" he then drew a crude outline of a VW Bug parked next to a meter showing a red violation flag. The "vehicle" had a license plate for the student to enter, a parking decal to verify and, presto, an effective classroom teaching tool was created.
In June 2001, Parking Enforcement Officers in Vancouver, BC, began using hand-held computers to do their jobs. The palm-sized ticketwriters featured wireless communications, utilizing Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) to transmit information. The City of Vancouver became the first jurisdiction in Canada to combine CDPD technology with hand-held units in a parking enforcement environment.
During the testing of the equipment, staff was excited about technology that allowed them to access information that previously was difficult to obtain. Once a license plate was entered into a unit, the officer had immediate and up-to-date feedback on outstanding tickets, previous cancellations, residential/exempt permits and any history of abusive behavior by the driver. Officers were also able to signal impound requests to the towing contractor without having to go through a dispatcher.
It was Rangen's job to ease the new technology into the workplace -- replacing pen and paper with stylus, screen, modem and printer. Rangen was hardly a computer expert, nor an experienced trainer. But by combining his experience as an enforcement officer, with patience and some on-the-job experiments like the street diagram, 94 of his peers are now using hand-held units on the street.
"I think it helped that computers were not my forte," said Rangen. "I could show the staff that if I'm able to do it, they should be to."
The one-day course divided time in the classroom and on the street. The instruction began at the most basic level for all the staff and didn't factor in any computer experience the student brought to the course.
"It was always the case that the younger generation picked it up right away," explained Rangen. "I let them work ahead and do their own thing if it was apparent they understood how it worked."
Some older staff who had written paper tickets for years found it more difficult to adjust their established routines. From filling in boxes on a single piece of paper, officers had to work through multiple screens to write each ticket. Notes that were often diagram-based had to be adapted to a written format. Then there was a printer to deal with and a whole different way to correct errors and void tickets.
Cliff was one of the senior officers in the branch who struggled with the technology. As someone who has never owned a computer, the switch to a wireless workplace caused a lot of stress. "Everyone was on the ball with computers," said Cliff of the first training session. "They all knew the terminology. I felt lost -- I was embarrassed. I felt like a dummy because I wasn't part of the computer age. All of the sudden, I wasn't part of the team."
For staff like Cliff, a key in providing a supportive environment for learning was the no-pressure approach from management. "There was no concern about ticket counts. We recognized this was a learning process and that it was more important to get it right," explained Rangen. Once officers received the hand-held training, there was no insistence on them to abandon their ticket books.
"The real challenge at this point was to communicate to the software vendor to get them to think in layman's terms," recalled Brent Heisler, the supervisor of the hand-held program. "Our big interest was the flow of the program. Software developers focus on the bulk and flexibility of the data."
After the initial training, Cliff went back to using traditional tickets. However, as more of the staff began permanently switching to the palm-sized units, Cliff approached Darcy for some one-on-one attention.
"I found that a lot better," said Cliff. "It was slower paced. It came together at my speed. I was used to writing 60 to 70 paper tickets, but Darcy told me not to worry if it's only 20 to 30 tickets. That was reassuring."
According to Rangen, the toughest obstacle for many officers was learning the shorthand, Graffiti symbols for note taking. Even though Graffiti strokes closely resemble those of the regular alphabet, officers were reluctant to give it a try.
"Convincing officers to use Graffiti was the most difficult part," explained Rangen. "It looks complicated, but it's not. Many people wanted to use the keyboard option instead, even though it was much slower. I had to convince them that Graffiti was better."
A game installed in each unit ended up being the best tutor. The player writes Graffiti strokes of letters and numbers as they drop from the top of the screen. As the player gets better, the characters fall more frequently and with more speed. The game often kept computer-experienced staff occupied during the training sessions while Rangen helped others who were struggling.
As with all new technology there were some logistical hurdles to overcome. A severe windstorm knocked down or misaligned several cellular towers, slowing down communications for weeks. And then printer problems developed after experimenting with a water-resistant paper to cope with the rain of the Pacific Northwest. Keeping the staff motivated to use the hand-helds during the rollout was often a challenge when the new system was not working properly.
"I'm a pretty patient person," said Rangen in coping with the technical problems. "Sometimes they would tell me they didn't want to use them anymore, and I would tell them to take out their manual tickets, or go for a coffee. I was frustrated by their problems too."
Now that most of the training is out of the way, making the hand-held program more effective is the next challenge. The cellular system will be upgraded to provide a consistently strong signal in all parts of the city. There will be more fine-tuning of the software. A better printer paper has been ordered and a complete training manual is in the works. These changes will make the transition to the computerized workplace an easier task for the next generation of officers.
Stephen Drake is a supervisor employed by the City of Vancouver, BC, in the Parking Enforcement Branch.