Many have heard the term “telematics,” but few outside the public works department truly understand these systems’ utility and their growing power in the government space. What many may assume is simply a fancy name for global positioning satellite (GPS) systems, telematics has actually evolved into a robust suite of data gathering tools that including granular data visualizations and predictive and preventative analytics systems.

Sherry Calkins, associate vice president of strategic partners at Geotab, an open fleet telematics and data analytics platform, says telematics has many benefits for local government fleets, including but not limited to increases in safety, efficiencies on the road and ultimately overall productivity and fleet optimization.

“Municipal use of telematics really revolves around fleet utilization,” says Calkins. “Do you have too many assets? Do you have large trucks when you could get away with a sedan? Really looking at those minute details helps fleets become as productive as possible.” By gathering and analyzing fleet data, she says, patterns begin to emerge, and with the right analytical tools, decisions made from these patterns will help fleet managers actualize their assets.

So, who is embracing telematics today, and what have the benefits been?

Data’s Benefits: Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio, winner of the Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge, has one of the smartest, most connected fleets in the country, and by utilizing telematics, Columbus had reaped numerous benefits. 

“For us, telematics began as a system to help us track our fleet and help end users track their vehicles along with their personnel,” says Kelly Reagan, fleet administrator for the city. “It was put in place with the idea that it would provide efficiencies and it would help divisions to control the behavior of their employees.”

Reagan goes on to explain that the system interfaces directly with Columbus’ fleet management information system to enhance preventative maintenance and warranty scheduling as well as alerting management to any error codes generated by the vehicle. By monitoring vehicles in this way, maintenance costs have been kept low.

The telematics systems also assist the city in identifying underutilized vehicles, says Reagan. For Columbus, which has a fleet of approximately 6,400 units, this can become a major issue. “Within large fleets, people have a tendency to hoard vehicles,” he explains. There are myriad reasons for this – maybe an employee left, but the manager is planning on hiring that position again in the future and wants to hang on to a vehicle for the hypothetical new employee – but for whatever the reason, it ends up becoming an underutilized asset. “If it’s underutilized, and the manager can’t explain why it’s underutilized, then we may reallocate that asset so that it can be better utilized in a different division.”

These technologies have also helped Columbus recover stolen assets. Not too long ago, Reagan says, a parks and recreation truck and trailer along with around $70,000 worth of equipment were stolen from a garage. Because the vehicle was GPS-equipped, the supervisor was able to see the real-time route and ultimate location of the vehicle, relay that information to police, who quickly recovered the assets and arrested the thieves.  

Perhaps most importantly, however, telematics can help correct bad driving habits across the entire fleet. Through speed alerts, supervisors can keep an eye on their drivers, “because frankly, we don’t want vehicles with City of Columbus branding driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit,” Reagan says. This ability to monitor behaviors decreases the risks for accidents and injuries and decreases the cities liability costs.

But to achieve these benefits, there are several hurdles to clear when adopting these technologies, Reagan explains. The first and most difficult is the misconception that systems are “1984”’s Big Brother realized – an ever-watchful eye scrutinizing drivers and coming down on them for any minor infraction. It’s important to have conversations early on with both unions and those in management about what technologies are being implemented, how this data is going to be used and how it will shape day-to-day operations. This may impact policy, and it may impact collective bargaining agreements. “It’s not necessary to seek permission to incorporate these technologies,” Reagan says, “It’s rather to educate the unions and employees of what is coming. What we’ve discovered is the sooner you start this process, the sooner they’re comfortable with the new technologies.” 

Telematics is changing the way modern fleets are operating and the skill sets fleet managers will need in the future, Reagan says. Currently, there is a wealth of data being collected through any number of sensors – onboard or otherwise. That data is valuable, but only insomuch as it can be interpreted and used in meaningful ways. “What has to happen, especially with larger fleets, is that they’ll have to have data support,” says Reagan. “They’re going to have to have data analysts, data specialists, somebody on board that can extrapolate and interpret the data that’s being collected.”  

But no two fleets are created equal – different departments have wildly different functions, and the telematics system for a parks and recreations fleet will have different needs than law enforcement.  

That’s why it’s important to work closely with stakeholders to understand individual departmental needs. The “one-size-fits-all” approach simply doesn’t work in this field.

That’s according to Gary Oldham, director of business development of government & public safety for Telogis, a mobile workforce management company. Law enforcement, in particular, has specific requirements when it comes to telematics, and by adopting specialized systems, these departments can not only increase efficiencies but save lives.

“Crashes are the leading cause of death for police officers in this country and have been for decades,” says Oldham. “A significant percentage of those crashes are preventable, and a very disturbing number of them are single-vehicle crashes which are almost by definition preventable. This is something that can be stopped.”  

The problem, Oldham says, is that traditionally departments had to be reactive when it comes to safety – acting only after an accident happened. With telematics, departments are able to become more proactive about safety and actually prevent accidents, injuries, and fatalities from occurring in the first place, as is the case in one pioneering sheriff’s department in Washington.

Life-saving data - Snohomish, Wash.

Rob Beidler, undersheriff for Snohomish County, Wash., is quite literally writing the book on telematics for police department use. Through their early adoption of telematics, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has been able to increase focus on driver safety – saving both money and lives.

The 800 some-odd employees in the department drive nearly 3 million miles annually, and Beidler says the department is ultimately responsible for their safety. “The sheriff and I are both very safety conscious. We think about it constantly, and we work towards it,” he says, but acknowledges more can always be done in this regard. 

That’s why Beidler is always looking for ways to increase officer safety. In 2015, Beidler attended the National FBI Academy where he learned of the Below 100 initiative, an effort to permanently eliminate preventable line-of-duty deaths and injuries through innovative training and awareness. The aim is to get line-of-duty deaths under 100 nationwide, a figure that hasn’t been realized since the 1940’s. “I came to a realization that although we really cared about safety, that we could do a lot better,” he says.

Upon returning from Virginia, Beidler worked to adopt the tenets of Below 100 in his department, using it as the vehicle for their new safety program. Telematics, he shares, is one of the prongs in his department’s 15-pronged approach to safety.

One of the leading causes of officer deaths is complacency – bad driving habits, failing to wear seatbelts and not wearing the proper equipment – in other words, many law enforcement deaths are preventable, Beidler explains. Telematics, he’s come to find, helps address many of these issues.

But before a program could be adopted, research had to be conducted. “At first no one really knew what telematics was in our organization… it’s practically non-existent in law enforcement,” says Beidler, adding that there weren’t many systems on the market designed with law enforcement in mind. “It was starting to be designed for law enforcement, but I would say the changes that have been made in the past year have made it invaluable.” 

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office started with a pilot program of putting telematics in just 10 cars, all the while working with the local unions to discuss how value would be measured and what the potential uses for the system could be down the road. After a successful pilot program, the county put out a request for proposals, and a vendor was selected that had both experience with emergency management services that could also manage the data collected – two critical criteria, Beidler says. 

The revamped driver safety program was launched in January 2016, with telematics systems installed on 170 response vehicles, but months of training and planning were involved, Beidler says. Talks with the union, supervisor training and the development of a new driver review board ensured everyone was ready for the changes the new program – driven by telematics – would bring.

And the changes were staggering. Beidler says that from 2015 to 2016, there was an approximate 20 percent decrease in overall collisions and a 20 percent decrease in preventable collisions. In 2017, the results were even more drastic. “It’s in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 percent,” he says. Additionally, this year, there was a decrease in discipline and sustained violations associated with pursuits and vehicle operations of between 70 and 80 percent.

Telematics has cut costs significantly as well, says Beidler. In 2015, the department paid about $2.3 million in litigation, but in 2016 and 2017, risk management has determined the potential liability was in the neighborhood of $200,000.

But most importantly, the program has decreased rates of injury. “In 2015, we had 11 significant injuries to citizens and deputies because of police-related collisions,” says Beidler. “In 2016 and 2017, we’ve had zero.” 

However, these drastic results aren’t achieved simply by installing telematics systems in vehicles alone. To sustain these levels of safety, the process has been ongoing, Beidler says. “Before we even rolled this out, the Sheriff and I and a couple of our bureau chiefs went out to every roll call in the county so we could personally answer questions,” he says, adding that driver safety is an ongoing focus in the department through regular reports, regular training and day-to-day encouragement to practice safe driving habits. Telematics, he says, allows these official communications, training sessions and one-on-one talks between officers and supervisors to be based in real-world, concrete facts. “It leaves nothing to the imagination,” he says. “We’re not speculating.”

However, for the program to see the successes it did, the foundations for it had to be laid. No one could argue with the objective safety benefits the system provides, he says, but that didn’t mean the department could be complacent in achieving buy-in. “At no point have we stopped discussing it with the unions. We have asked them to help design what it looks like and how it will be used,” says Beidler. 

He explains that whenever a new technology is adopted that will impact working conditions, policy and procedure, it’s necessary to have discussions with everyone involved. “You have to bargain those, you have to talk about those,” he says “You have to be clear about what will lead to discipline. It’s new and it’s changing. We will always be open to talking about that.”  

Beidler agrees with Reagan that it’s important to clear up the “Big Brother” misconception. It’s up to the department, he says, to demonstrate that these systems aren’t meant to be punitive; they are meant to protect. To this day, the department hasn’t disciplined anyone over the patterns and behaviors revealed in the telematics data. “This isn’t a discipline tool for us, it’s a training tool and a safety tool,” he explains. 

In looking towards the future of telematics, Beidler hopes to see greater law enforcement adoption. He challenges others in his position to look into these new technologies and using them to help protect both officers and civilians alike. “Here’s what makes me lose sleep,” he says. “If we wouldn’t have done this program... then the trend [of officer death and injury] would have continued. Someone would be hurt or dead if we hadn’t have done this.” 

“I know it sounds a little bit obscene to some people,” Beidler adds, “but my message to administrators in every line of work, but especially law enforcement… is that we’ve proven that this works, we’ve proven that you can keep your people safe. By not at least trying, you don’t know who you’re condemning.”

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