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Viterbi Engineering Writing Students Install New Barcode System for LAPD

A Good Neighbors Project Lets Students Do Some Hands-On Work

October 11, 2005 —
Police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Division typically spend the first 30 to 60 minutes of their shift checking out all the equipment they need for a day’s work: shotguns, tasers, hand-held radios, vehicle keys, citation books, PODDS (portable officer data device systems), cell phones, you name it. The serial number on each piece of equipment has to be jotted down longhand by a “kit room” manager before the equipment is issued.  

Engineering student Tomer Mor-Barak puts new barcode sticker on a police radio while Sergeant Tony O'Brien looks on.

The same thing goes at the end of the day.  If something on the inventory list is not checked in — a radio, set of keys or rifle — the kit room manager may spend days, even weeks, tracking it down.

“We’d been looking for a way to streamline the inventory system for several years, because the manual system was such a disaster,” said Southwest Division Sergeant Tony O’Brien.  “When we got our PODDS in March 2004, it became a priority.”  

They turned to the USC Viterbi School’s Engineering Writing Program, which coordinates community-based service-learning projects to help engineering students hone their communications skills.   Serving the University Park campus, the Southwest Division takes care of the USC campus, covering an area of more than 13 square miles.  It serves a diverse population of more than 175,000 residents, including many USC students and faculty.

Call for Proposals
Southwest Division Captain Nancy Lauer developed a request for proposals in the fall semester 2004, with assistance from Stephen Bucher, director of the Viterbi School Engineering Writing Program, to solicit redesigns of her division’s equipment room. 
Three groups of students in WRIT 340: Advanced Writing and Communications for Engineers, addressed the inventory control problem and made a number of recommendations, including a practical, laser-based bar code and inventory control system, to remedy the situation. The students included Tomer Mor-Barak, Amando Cope, Taylor Fort, Sylvia Garciga, Maurice Khayat, Christopher Kolar, Christopher Kradjian, Rodney Lim, Herman Malamud, Ian Topic and Christine Voss.

Officer Lucia McKenzie checking out equipment at the Kit Room window.

The Southwest Division liked the recommendations and assigned training officer Guido Merkens, a 10-year LAPD veteran, to oversee the redesign. First he had to procure a personal computer to use with the inventory control software and laser barcode scanner that was being recommended. Once that was accomplished, the WRIT 340 engineering students helped the division apply for a $1,500 grant from the USC Neighborhood Outreach program to buy the rest of the equipment.
“The Good Neighbors Campaign funded the proposal because the project was bound to have an impact on public safety in the surrounding community and on the USC campus,” said James Moore, chairman of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, who is overseeing this year’s Good Neighbors Campaign for the Viterbi School of Engineering. “Projects like these are superb examples of why the Good Neighbors Campaign is so important.”

This summer, the students installed the system.

“Although many of the non-profit groups that WRIT 340 students have worked with in the past received grants and implemented student recommendations, this was the first project in which the students were directly involved from inception through implementation,” said David Woollard, a Viterbi School computer science graduate student and Mellon Foundation mentor for the Engineering Writing Program, who has just finished installing the system with former WRIT 340 students.

“We think a fast equipment checkout time should have a direct impact on the amount of time officers spend patrolling this area, which includes the University Park neighborhood,” he said.  

Wasp 300 Barcode Kit
The system they chose was a Wasp 300 Barcode Kit, which is commercially available and widely used for similar applications, said Tomer Mor-Barak, a senior in the Viterbi School majoring in interactive entertainment.  “We chose it because it is simple to use, maintain and update.”

Hardware consisted of a laser scanner to capture and decode barcodes, a barcode label printer, tracking software and barcode stickers, which come in a range of shapes and sizes to ensure that they can be attached to any piece of equipment.  The Southwest Division’s PC and handheld scanner were placed in the middle of the equipment room, near the checkout window.  The printer, which has special thermal printing capabilities, allowed students to create barcode stickers that would withstand a great deal of wear and tear, lasting up to 12 months.   

Students spent two weeks in August and September tagging equipment with barcodes and scanning them into the computer.  Once each barcode was scanned, a student would write a brief description of the item and enter it into the computer.  That linked each tag with a record of the item in the computer.

Each officer was assigned a personal barcode equipment number, which was affixed to his or her ID card.  The information was scanned into the computer to link the individual with his or her barcode number.

Police radios are just one of many items that must be checked out to between 25 and 30 officers at the beginning of each shift.

“The scanner is a combination handheld computer and laser scanner, with a scanning distance of 1-to-2 feet,” said Mor-Barak.  “When the item is scanned, you can see right on the scanner a confirmation of what item is being checked in or out.”

Once the system is up and running, it will be able not only to keep track of the equipment but allow the officers to perform daily equipment audits without printing out long inventory lists.  “We have set up a simple management program with the software that will let the kit manager sort items by category if they want,” Mor-Barak said.

Obvious Benefits
Beyond its obvious benefits, the new barcode system will give the Southwest Division a better system of monitoring equipment that requires extensive maintenance, such as bean-bag guns.  That equipment was not inventoried when it left the precinct for routine maintenance under the manual record-keeping system.

“Once we get everything bar-coded, and get the people trained properly to use the inventory system, I bet we’ll see a reduction in the amount of time it takes to check out equipment and get officers into the field faster,” said Sergeant O’Brien. “I bet we won’t lose as much equipment either.”   

Over time, the barcode system could be upgraded to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, a faster, more efficient equipment tracking system to install and maintain, albeit more expensive.  The Engineering Writing Program students recommended that the division consider an up-and-coming system, called Wheels of Zeus, a two-way, point-to-point wireless network that allows real-time tracking and notification of missing equipment from a computer with a broadband Internet service.  That system is not yet on the market.

David Woollard holding a taser rifle that he will barcode and inventory at the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division.

“If this system is used at the LAPD, it would allow them to track and locate their equipment at all times,” the students reported in their proposal to the Southwest Division.  “They could also locate officers in the field, using a GPS receiver that would be installed at the precinct.  If an officer was involved in a shootout and got separated from his radio, the GPS receiver could locate him.”  

The Engineering Writing Program has been conducting project-based service learning in the form of requests for proposals from non-profit groups in the Los Angeles area for more than six years. Program director Stephen Bucher is a member of the Community-Based Learning Collaborative (http://cblc.usc.edu), a diverse group of faculty, staff, students and community partners who share an interest in furthering the university's commitment to integrating public service into research and teaching.
The response to service learning — from community organizations and students alike — has been favorable. 

"This was a very rewarding way of applying my skills to a real world problem," Mor-Barak said.
He's not the only student who would say that.
--Diane Ainsworth