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February 7, 2008

Handheld devices help maintenance workers

Of all the University employees who carry handheld electronic devices with them as part of their jobs, among the least likely might be Pitt’s maintenance workers. Wrenches, plungers and screwdrivers, of course, but handheld electronic devices?

For nearly two years, though, the devices have been among the tools that accompany the engineers, electricians and mechanics in the Department of Housing and Food Services as they go about their daily work.

Whatever the problem — from malfunctioning key cards to flooded bathrooms — when resident students have an issue with their living space, maintenance coordinator Ron Markovich’s team of 22 engineers, three electricians and eight mechanics are prepared to respond. Not only is the handheld system speeding the resolution of maintenance requests, it’s eliminating paperwork for the department.

The use of the handheld system also has cut down on the backlog of open work orders. A little more than a year ago, there were between 850 and 1,000 open work orders. Now, they’ve been reduced to a fraction of that. Markovich said his men now typically have between 100 and 150 open work requests at any one time.

Housing and Food Services director Jim Earle’s goal is to have staff respond to maintenance requests within 48 hours. According to Walt Kalista, the department’s computerized maintenance management software analyst, the department is getting closer to that goal: In January, 87 percent of requests were completed within the 48 hours compared to 45 percent in September 2007.

The handhelds enhance a maintenance request system that students can access online via the Panther Central web site. Although students can phone in their maintenance requests, Markovich said the online form is more accurate because students enter the information directly. On the site, the student can select the problem from a drop-down menu that lists common problems ranging from burnt-out light bulbs to clogged toilets. When the request is submitted, an auto-reply message notifies the student that the request has been received.

Markovich then must approve and classify, or “validate,” the request. He goes online three times a day to check for requests, validating 80-150 a day. The busiest day is Monday, since only emergency requests are handled on weekends. On other mornings, he typically finds 30-40 requests waiting from overnight. About 30-50 more trickle in throughout the day. The most common maintenance requests are for HVAC problems, plumbing, door locks, blown breakers and phone or computer issues, Markovich said.

Duplicate requests, those that include multiple tasks on one form or those that lack essential information such as room numbers are rejected. Either way, students receive another email to let them know that the work order either is in the queue or to tell them why their request was rejected and how to proceed.

Markovich is a fan of the online validation process, which also includes menu shortcuts that save him time. What once took hours now can be tackled in about 20 minutes, he said. With a few clicks, he can assign a job to the proper staff member — all without having to use paper work orders. Another advantage is that work orders in the system can be shifted easily to another worker if one of the maintenance staff calls off. Previously, all the paperwork would need to be tracked down and redistributed, with anything left undone needing to be re-collected at the end of the day.

Regardless of the convenience the system provides him, Markovich said the staff needed to buy into it as well, which they did with few complaints. Noting that they weren’t hired to do computer work, he commended them for how they’ve embraced the new tool. “It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the staff. They do a great job,” he said.

The maintenance workers receive their orders by synchronizing their handheld devices with the department’s computer system each morning.

Stationary engineer George Petrucci, who is assigned to cover maintenance requests in Litchfield Towers, was among the first to test the handhelds. Using them now is routine for him.

With a few taps on the handheld’s screen, Petrucci can review his day’s work to prioritize his tasks and to be sure he stocks his supply cart with the items he’s likely to need — saving time that might otherwise be wasted on extra trips to the stockroom.

While he’s out and about, he also can better document his day by entering new work orders into the system as he gets additional requests.

Often the workers see other problems that need fixing, or while they’re out on a call someone nearby will ask them to fix something else. Previously, those extra tasks might be forgotten by the end of the day, leaving the workers unable to fully account for their time. “Now we’re better able to document what we’ve done,” he said. Petrucci said it’s simple to key in the extra work he’s done right on the handheld throughout the day, syncing up again later to update and again at the end of the day to download his day’s completed work.

Once that’s done, another email is sent to the student, confirming that the work has been completed. (Workers also leave a courtesy card when they’ve entered an empty room to let the resident know what they’ve done.) Kalista said a “waiting for parts” message is being developed so students will know when a worker has tried to address a problem but has been unable to complete the work immediately.

As a result of the handheld system, efficiency is increasing and work orders are being completed more quickly, Kalista said.

During 2006, more than 23,000 work orders were completed, up from fewer than 17,000 in 2005 with the addition of only one engineer. He said the higher numbers are the result of improved reporting as well as increased efficiency.

Last September, the department expanded use of the system to add preventative maintenance work orders to the mix, assigning such tasks as changing HVAC filters in each room or checking fire alarms and emergency generators. The system automatically generates work slips for daily, weekly and monthly tasks that need to be done before something goes wrong, to keep the department’s equipment and systems running as they should — helping raise the total of work orders to nearly 38,000. And, he said, the numbers are expected to continue to grow as more preventative maintenance jobs are entered into the system. The department already has put nearly 10,500 preventative maintenance tasks per year into the system, but Kalista estimated that soon will grow to 17,000 per year.

The handheld system has other features that will enable the department to improve inventory management and better document actual costs of maintaining each building. That information will aid in staffing and budgeting decisions, Kalista said. In addition, wireless communication could be added, eliminating the need to sync up and allowing for faster distribution of work orders to the staff.

Markovich agreed that the department is only scratching the surface with regard to the capabilities of the handheld system. Citing the continuing upgrades, “I’m not sure we’ll ever be done with it,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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