August 7, 2004 in City

Meter patrols going high-tech

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson/ photo

Ed Basinger, city parking enforcement, checks out a new handheld wireless device that will allow patrols to check vehicles and issue parking citations.
(Full-size photo)

Within several months Spokane’s downtown meter patrols will start carrying new high-tech, handheld devices that will do lots more than help write tickets.

The city will spend more than $200,000 outfitting its meter crews so they can instantly identify stolen vehicles parked downtown, spot repeat out-of-town meter scofflaws or possibly add digital photos to tickets in instances where a picture tells the story.

Exactly when the changes will take place hasn’t been set. City officials have hired a British software firm to create applications for the new handsets.

The work is falling slightly behind schedule, leaving the launch date uncertain, said Dave Shaw, the city’s traffic control supervisor.

Once delivered, the dozen or so handheld devices, made by and purchased from Spokane-based Itronix Corp., will lift city meter patrols into the 21st century of ticket management, Shaw said.

Other cities, such as Olympia, use handheld meter devices for parking enforcement. But Shaw said he’s found no other U.S. city planning to incorporate as many features as Spokane’s system will have.

The backbone of the new system is downtown Spokane’s wireless “hotzone,” where mobile devices equipped with network cards can grab data across 100 square blocks in the city’s core. Using the Wi-Fi hotzone, parking-patrol crews will have fast, mobile access to information from the city’s central office.

An initial benefit will be the ability of parking patrols to spot stolen cars parked downtown. Meter patrol officers now carry printouts listing the plate numbers of stolen cars, but seldom have time to check them, Shaw said.

With the new technology, parking patrol officers can type in a license plate number and if it matches that of a stolen vehicle, the handheld will flash a warning. Police officials estimate the service could help nab at least 20 to 30 stolen vehicles a year.

“This system will find them quickly,” Shaw said, adding, “or at least until the bad guys figure out that parking downtown isn’t a good idea.”

City officials began looking at upgrading parking enforcement about 18 months ago. The first goal was to simplify the gathering of tickets handed out by the six workers who patrol downtown. The current system involves placing all the tickets written each day in piles and sending them to Spokane Municipal Court, where a clerk types all the data into a computer.

The new system will let parking meter workers transfer records directly into the court’s computer. At the same time, new information needed by the patrol officers will be downloaded to their handheld devices.

Spokane meter patrols issue more than 75,000 tickets a year. Eliminating manual inputting of those tickets means the clerk now assigned that job should have about 20 extra hours of time for other tasks, said court enforcement manager Joe Koontz.

Beyond saving time, the new devices are expected to generate extra cash for the city, said Shaw. Parking tickets in 2003 netted city coffers about $1.3 million. Parking meters raised about $1.7 million, Shaw said.

Meter patrols now allow one courtesy pass for out-of-state drivers who get a parking ticket downtown. Shaw said many visitors take advantage and don’t bother plugging meters at all, hoping for a steady stream of courtesy passes. The wireless system will tell the meter patrols whether a particular out-of-state license plate has received its one courtesy pass.

The meter patrols also will be able to monitor use of the orange bags that businesses rent and put over meters to reserve parking spaces. Currently, meter patrols don’t know if the standard 30-minute time limit has been reached or if extra time has been added. The new system will tell patrols exactly how long each orange bag should be left on a meter, said Shaw. The same clock-watching feature will also allow meter patrols to track drivers who abuse downtown three-hour meters.

“The city would like to get downtown employees to stop parking on the street” to leave more spaces for visitors and shoppers, Shaw said. Meter patrols now chalk a car’s tires and watch to see if a car has moved in three hours. When a patrol shift-change occurs, however, most parking officers don’t have the option of passing on how many cars they’re still watching.

The new database will more efficiently keep track of the vehicles using the three-hour meters and help patrols write tickets when someone’s exceeded the allotted time, Shaw said.

The new system also has the option of attaching digital photos taken by ticket-writers in any instance where the driver might challenge the location of the car or some other issue. Parking patrol officers now take Polaroid snapshots of cars parked in handicapped spaces, for example. The new system would make that process easier.

Beyond parking enforcement, the city plans to use the Wi-Fi zone for other municipal departments. The next group to bring more technology into their daily activities would be city fire and police crews, said Joel Hobson, the city’s technical services manager.

Eventually, crews working for utilities, water and streets all will plug into the network to obtain up-to-date information on what equipment is on hand and which repair parts are available, he said.

Not everyone, however, believes the technology will provide a major upgrade to municipal services.

Jim Thompson, a former vice president at Vivato, a Spokane Valley company that provided some of the equipment for the Wi-Fi zone, contends the city is building a network with flaws that will leave it unreliable.

Thompson quit Vivato several months ago after a dispute over company direction. Vivato designed five large outdoor switches, or bay stations, that transmit wireless data across most of downtown.

Now living in Hawaii, Thompson said the city’s system won’t be reliable enough because Wi-Fi networks have inherent technical problems. The Spokane hotzone, like others elsewhere, relies on radio transmissions over unlicensed portions of the public spectrum. Wi-Fi systems have difficulty when too many competing signals are sending and receiving data at the same time. Already in downtown Spokane, more than a dozen other public Wi-Fi networks are using the same airwaves.

Because of that signal congestion, Thompson believes Spokane’s planned municipal network “will never work the way they hope it to.”

Hobson said the people who’ve put the hotzone together realize they have to monitor and manage data traffic.

“We’ve had no complaints at all about the zone,” Hobson said. And Vivato officials, he said, have already hired an outside consultant to help tweak and maintain the quality of service available in the hotzone.

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