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Integrating Innovation

2013-11-01, Department, by Amy Kapp

In Illinois, Sycamore Park District is using GIS for better land-use planning in relation to major flood events, such as the 1997 flood depicted here.When North Myrtle Beach Parks and Recreation Department staff set out to create a 160-acre sports complex several years ago, they began the development of what Public Grounds Superintendent Jim Grainger calls the “mother of all parks” in their South Carolina community. In addition to serving as a major revenue generator, with 14 sports fields, a veterans’ plaza, an amphitheater and a zip line, the complex, when complete, will more than double the city’s parkland.

Daunting? Maybe. But Grainger had an advantage that would prove critical to front-end planning: information. For years, North Myrtle Beach had been using a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) called MainTrac to record and monitor work orders, equipment use, spending and man hours in the city’s nine parks and facilities.

“You’re taking a piece of raw material and asking, ‘What are the maintenance expectations?’” he says, speaking of the planning for the complex. “We could go back to our historical data and say, ‘In order to achieve those expectations, we know we’ll need this many resources, whether they be human, equipment or material. Are we willing to commit that dollar amount to get that level of maintenance, or do we have to limit our expectations because of the resources we have?’”

Park and recreation agencies that integrated technology advances into their operations before or during the American economic recession — when maintenance was hard-hit in the U.S. — affirm the powerful role they’ve played in resource management and development. Now, as America moves toward recovery, and with the increased availability of online computerized maintenance tracking systems, GIS tools and smart devices, agencies are exploring new and cutting-edge ways to streamline their services and replicate the knowledge and efficiency gains like those experienced in North Myrtle Beach.

Tracking in the New Digital Age

(Good) Data is Power

Grainger, a regent for the NRPA Park and Recreation Maintenance Management School, believes it’s the ability to justify — with credibility — and efficiently manage scarce resources that make a CMMS a powerful tool. But he cautions that to be effective, staff must be familiar with the tool and understand the what, and why, for each piece of data.

“I tell my staff, ‘Here’s the type of information I’m pulling, and here’s how specific you need to be,’” he states. “When you are doing a routine thing, there can be a tendency to punch in the same thing you did last time. But nuances are important.”

In Florida, Martin County Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Randy Phillips and Parks Superintendent Mark Lynch, vice chair and chair of the NRPA Maintenance Management School, affirm data integrity, and therefore the training of front-line workers, as a priority when integrating technology.

“You have to create buy-in from your line staff and demonstrate what’s in it for them, whether it’s the ability to purchase more equipment, hire more people or do more tasks,” affirms Phillips. “If your data doesn’t have integrity, you’re making decisions on erroneous information. Garbage in, garbage out.”

Lynch credits Martin County’s Hansen CMMS with helping his department navigate through the U.S. recession, cope with Florida property tax legislation that limited county funding for parks and navigate the road to recovery. He lists recent gains, such as freed staff hours, the reacquisition of staff and the creation of new maintenance crews. 

He compares the process to cleaning the garage. “You realize you haven’t used some things in a long time, so you do away with them. Now we can use that additional staff time and money to do things we weren’t doing before.”

Streamlining

For the past two years, Roswell, Georgia’s Recreation, Parks, Historic and Cultural Affairs Department has been using an online version of MainTrac to help maintain its 32 parks and related facilities. Jeff Pruitt, administrator of park services, says the linking of MainTrac to the department’s RecTrac system helps to create a streamlined work-order network between recreation managers and maintenance staff. And because orders can be placed via the Internet, critical issues can be addressed quickly.

“There was a DUI incident…where a woman drove through a barrier protecting a 10-foot walkway along the road,” Pruitt says. “When the police report came back, we generated a work order, and it went immediately to the appropriate person. [That person] went down the next morning and secured the barrier until we can get the money from the person’s insurance for repairs.”

Roswell is the first park agency in greater Atlanta to purchase a propane-powered mower, and MainTrac will be a useful tool for staff as they track the mower’s usage and durability — and consider future purchases. 

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” Pruitt adds.

Customization = Optimization

Some agencies are considering completely customized CMMS solutions for their unique maintenance needs. Estimating that an out-of-the-box solution would cost approximately $1 million over five years, Cleveland Metroparks in Ohio instead commissioned a local software developer to create a customized browser-based solution costing just under $60,000. To further streamline operations, the department has plans to distribute iPads to select staff for wireless work orders. The tracking system launches in January 2014.

“The most significant reason for doing it that way is how we felt we’d be able to integrate the system from a staff-user perspective...how we would need and be able to collect data and generate the reports,” says Fleet Manager Michael Wegas, noting the change in department culture that will take place.

“The out-of-the-box solution would have had a lot of components we aren’t ready to turn on,” Wegas adds. “It’s not that they aren’t useful from an efficiency standpoint, but we determined we’d only use about 40 percent of them [at the outset]. We could have spent more money on an out-of-the-box package, and it probably would have made things more complicated.”

Reaching New Levels with GIS Integration

When it comes to best practices, Sycamore Park District in Illinois is making strides with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). According to Executive Director Daniel Gibble, an NRPA Maintenance Management School regent, the use of shape files in identifying customers who rate services, complete surveys and sign up for programs provides a spatial sense for his department of what different socioeconomic groups within the community are thinking. Sycamore is also employing GIS-based strategies to depict land use in relation to major flood events, five of which have hit the area in the last decade.

“Since 68 percent of our open space is in the floodplain or floodway, the use of GIS aids in better site planning for facilities, avoiding conflicts in use, permitting processes or simply explaining to citizens why a certain land use is in conflict with other conditions,” Gibble explains. He uses himself as an example. “I am a visual person. You can describe something to me, but it means more when I see it.” 

The growing suburban community still has large areas of open space, and the district is using GIS to assist with identifying future park sites and planning for the removal of sports facilities to higher ground through its VISION 2020 strategic planning process.

Think Big, Start Small

Martin County, Florida, staff thought their park inventory was sufficient until they were hit with three hurricanes within 13 months in the mid 2000s. “We found out quickly it wasn’t what we thought it to be,” Phillips says. He recognized that taking their inventory to the next level with GIS, and integrating the GIS with their CMMS, would help in predisaster planning, as well as with response activities and communication with federal aid programs and grant providers.

The main challenge of a GIS project, Phillips notes, is the upfront work involved with compiling and inputting information. Therefore, agencies should start small. To that effect, Martin County chose a sample park and used it as a pilot. 

“You don’t want to do your whole park system at one time,” Phillips says. “The important thing is to get in the priority elements and make sure they’re right…that when you retrieve the data, it’s usable. You can always add later.”

The park and recreation department has drawn valuable assistance from the county’s IT and utilities departments, minimizing costs. “We’ve been doing a lot with the help of our friends,” Lynch says. “They’ve gone out with us…like trainers, showing our staff how to use and be comfortable with the equipment used to gather data in the field…and teaching us how to use the GIS software. And, we’ve been using their staff time minimally to the point where they haven’t really charged us internally.”

Martin County is moving forward to deploy smart tablets to line supervisors so they can implement inspections in a paperless manner and access GIS information wirelessly to support maintenance activities.

“We are maximizing our operations through GIS, and the awards will be efficiency and customer service,” Phillips affirms.

Amy Kapp is a freelance writer in northern Virginia.

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