Road signs of the times
The Kitsap County, Wash., Roads Department has begun automating its road sign maintenance tasks. Using mobile terminals, bar codes and software, road crews have increased productivity and reduced errors when tracking sign conditions and locations.
The Roads Department maintains approximately 18,000 road signs over 396 square miles in the county, which is located on the Puget Sound. For several years, the department has been keeping sign maintenance records — such as installation dates, replacement information and sign conditions — in a central database. Road crews were dispatched daily to inspect or install signs, which were identified by serial numbers, and record their conditions on paper forms.
When crews returned to the office, they entered the day’s results in a spreadsheet, and once a week the traffic engineer would review the spreadsheet, aggregate the data and feed it into the central database. “It took [crews] more than an hour a day to look up information and transcribe data recorded in the field onto an electronic spreadsheet,” says Jeff Shea, traffic engineer. “Accuracy checks revealed that numbers were often transposed, and sign information was being incorrectly documented. It became clear that we needed a better way to handle sign tracking and maintenance — and the solution [needed to] be affordable and easy to use.”
Kitsap County’s search for an automated management system led to SignTrack, a sign inventory and maintenance software system from Gig Harbor, Wash.-based POSDATA. SignTrack combines the company’s software with a label printer from Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies and mobile bar code scanning terminals from Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies.
The department prints bar code labels on white label stock — a polyester material with a strong acrylic-based adhesive. The labels are placed on the backs of traffic control signs and on corners of street signs. Each label has an 11-digit serial number that is printed in a bar code and in text that uniquely identifies the sign and its location. The number includes a five-digit road identification code, a four-digit mile code that pinpoints the sign location, a digit indicating the proper side of the road, and a sequence number that differentiates each sign if multiples are posted at the same location.
Kitsap County began using the system in winter 2003 to apply bar code labels to all new signs, and road crews continue to label existing signs. Five road crews install and maintain signs, and each crew has a Dell Axim hand-held computer with an integrated bar code scanner, which runs the field version of the tracking software. The crews scan the bar code on the sign and then pull a trigger on the hand-held computer to activate menu-driven prompts to record sign location, condition and maintenance. “With this system, the technician identifies the sign and inputs data once,” Shea says. “The bar code labels are the key to eliminating redundant data entry and increasing the accuracy and integrity of data in the system.”
Once a week, crews download their sign data to the central database by connecting the hand-held computers to a PC running the host version of the software. The new system also alerts users of signs scheduled for replacement, calculates upcoming sign needs, and generates reports about work crew activity, sign conditions, maintenance trends and inventory.
In addition to improving accuracy, the system has saved the department time while increasing the productivity of field staff. Previously, Shea spent three to four hours a week reviewing and entering field data in the central database. “Now we can download information from all five mobile terminals once a week — a process that takes about 15 minutes. That’s a 92 percent time savings,” Shea says. “We also generate a weekly report to review with road crews, and [we] can tie the data into our inventory and [geographic information system] GIS application.”