Tuppen Construction tests Pocket PCs for field workers

TORONTO – When more than 150 mm of rain fell in a three-hour period last August, causing many basements to flood in the northern part of Toronto, Melani Deckert was wishing her workforce were more mobile.

As acting president of Etobicoke, Ont.-based Tuppen Construction Ltd., Deckert leads a team of restoration constructors who work with major insurance companies in repairing buildings damaged by fire, water, smoke and a range of other disasters. Recent requests from those insurance firms for more timely communication, along with an interest in improving productivity, led Tuppen two weeks ago to roll out a handful of UTStarcom’s  Pocket PC devices running Windows Mobile and connecting to Microsoft Canada’s Small Business Server product.

“It’s too soon for us to have hard numbers yet, but I would say we’re saving about two hours a day,” Deckert said during a roundtable hosted by Microsoft Canada to discuss wireless mobility.

Deckert said 80 per cent of her staff’s time is spent on the road, visiting restoration sites and planning the work they’ll have to do. Lack of mobile connectivity was also an issue during the July, 2004 floods in Peterborough, she said, where some staff were staying on site for two weeks but still had to make trips back and forth to Tuppen’s head office to download photos and access corporate files.

“Some sort of GPS navigation would have been great then,” Deckert said. “Instead, we were really struggling as a company to find out where we were needed just by driving around neighbourhoods.”

Tuppen is in the process of developing pre-printed emergency authorization forms that can be delivered through its Pocket PCs, and is already using the devices for employee timesheets, Deckert said. They are also using them to directly e-mail photos to insurance adjusters, and to sketch room layouts onscreen.

“The weirdest things used to happen sometimes – you’d be trying to sketch something outside and your pen would freeze,” Deckert said.

Gavin Steiner, president of Microsoft reseller Interprom Inc., said Tuppen is an example of shift in thinking around mobility that is seeing more small business take a proactive approach to their wireless computing needs.

“Historically it would have been the fires that brought them to us,” he said. “This was a case where (Deckert) e-mailed me . . . in many cases it’s been an education process. There’s a real fear because they may not have full-time IT people. They wonder how many days they’re going to have to take off for training.”

In this case, Interprom had about an hour to train Tuppen’s staff, Steiner said. Interprom learned, however, that while mobile computing can create major changes in small businesses, some things have to be left alone.

“Tuppen had this big whiteboard they used for planning and stuff,” Steiner said. “My first instinct when I was in there was to tell her we could take everything that was on that and put it into computers. But she really wanted there to be a big visual for everyone to see.”

Deckert said the use of Pocket PCs could likely save Tuppen about $400 a month on the data services package it gets for staff cell phones, which used to run in the range of $1,600 a month.

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