Wireless apps pay off in unexpected ways

Attendees at Computerworld's Mobile & Wireless World conference in Orlando last week heard some tales of unexpected benefits that don't show up on corporate balance sheets -- such as catching crooks and saving the lives of workers.

For example, Aline Ward, CIO at Southern's Mississippi Power subsidiary, detailed Southern's experience in rolling out an automated resource management system for functions such as service order dispatch and vehicle location. The system includes radios that broadcast an alert when an emergency button is pushed.

Ward, who is also responsible for all of the power transmission and distribution systems at Southern, said that soon after the rollout began five years ago, a worker fell out of his bucket truck and was seriously injured.

"He happened to have his radio, and he hit the emergency button," Ward said. "Someone got there very quickly." She added that emergency services workers told Southern the rapid arrival "was very critical to his full recovery." And because the company places the utmost importance on worker safety, she said, the incident "sold the system a lot."

Another surprise benefit of the technology was the ability to recover stolen trucks, Ward said. Three years ago in Alabama, a field worker radioed that his company truck had been stolen.

Because the wireless system was built to track vehicles, Southern's dispatchers could see the truck on an electronic map. Ward said they notified police and then provided location updates until the truck was recovered, with no damage.

Robert Gregor Jr., manager of telecommunications at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the health care facility installed a mobile system to give remote workers the same telephone functions they have at their desks.

But after the system was in place, the medical center found that it also helped in retaining employees in areas such as tech support and records transcription, Gregor said. For example, tech support workers were happier because they could be on standby at home instead of having to remain at an office location.

Officials at Cox Communications were pleasantly surprised when a wireless system helped the Atlanta-based cable TV operator retrieve 15 laptops stolen in Virginia last year.

Al Briggs, director of mobile solutions services at Cox, said the wireless technology was installed primarily to benefit the company's field service workers. However, after the laptops were stolen, he said, "some very enterprising technicians in our group" suggested that the company use the new system to push software to the missing machines to help locate them.

The technicians remotely installed laptop security and tracking software on the PCs, then worked with local authorities to recover the equipment, Briggs said.

He added that the story of the stolen laptops made it all the way up to Cox's CIO, who validated the wireless project's value with a one-word reply: "Cool."

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