Roto-rooter taps wireless IT to dispatch plumbers

No one in need of a plumber wants to wait long for help to arrive, which is why Roto-Rooter Inc. plans to use advanced wireless technology to automate dispatch functions for the 1,500 plumbers and drain cleaners at its company-owned operations.

Steve Poppe, Roto-Rooter’s CIO, said the Cincinnati-based subsidiary of Chemed Corp. will also rely on the new wireless system to manage customer billing through the use of mobile credit card terminals and portable printers.

Poppe said the automated billing should reduce the bank fees paid by Roto-Rooter, which has annual revenue of about US$280 million — with upward of $80 million coming through credit card purchases. Poppe declined to specify the expected savings, except to say that they should be “significant.” Nor would he disclose the cost of the project.

Roto-Rooter is building its wireless system around dispatch application software developed by Minneapolis-based Gearworks Inc. Gearworks, which will announce the project this week, is also hosting the applications and linking them to Roto-Rooter’s internally developed back-office billing and customer systems.

The wireless system also includes ruggedized Motorola Inc. mobile data phones that are equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Data transmissions will be sent to field workers via Nextel Communications Inc.’s wireless network, which supports transfer rates of 20K to 40K bit/sec.

Poppe said Roto-Rooter plans to start deploying the phones to users next quarter. By then, he added, the company will have picked a vendor for the portable printers, which will be connected to the phones via Bluetooth short-range wireless technology.

Weston Henderek, an analyst at ARS Inc. in La Jolla, Calif., said he expects most of the growth in wireless data applications to come from businesses like Roto-Rooter with large staffs of field service, delivery or sales workers.

Gearworks CEO Keith Lauver said the company used XML code that’s delivered to the Motorola phones as Java applets to customize its Etrace software for Roto-Rooter. The applets could also run on other mobile devices, such as handheld PCs, he added.

That flexibility was essential to Roto-Rooter so it would have the option of switching to different devices or wireless network operators, Poppe said.

Lauver said the GPS receiver built into Motorola’s phones is a key component of the dispatch system. The GPS-derived location of each field worker, pinpointed to within 100 feet, will be displayed on a map that workers at Roto-Rooter’s dispatch centers can access on an extranet-based Web page.

Once dispatchers identify the worker closest to a customer calling for service, they will send a message with the customer’s address to that employee’s phone, Poppe said. When the job is completed, the Gearworks software will guide the worker through the billing process and generate a Java-based invoice that can be printed in the field, he added.