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GPS for EMS Employees Offers Benefits, Raises Questions

PITTSBURGH– Pittsburgh soon could take a cue from a growing number of local trucking, ambulance and taxi companies that use GPS tracking devices to streamline gas-guzzling routes and catch employees slacking on the job.

City police Chief Nate Harper wants to spend $200,000 to $300,000 to equip about 270 police vehicles with transmitters visible to 24 global positioning satellites orbiting 11,000 miles above the Earth.

Few small governments can afford the tracking technology, which can cost from $250 to $500 a vehicle, but that doesn t mean it isn t a seductive possibility as prices continue to drop.

We d love to have them, said Tom Kelly, Mt. Lebanon public works director. Maybe for our snow plows when the costs come down.

Harper said GPS would allow police to find directions to crime scenes quickly and help 911 dispatchers pinpoint police units on a computer-generated map of the city.

That way, dispatch will know what s the closest car to a call that comes in, Harper said. And guess what? Now officers that aren t performing as well as the other officers won t get a chance to hide.

Jim Malloy, president of police union Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, dismissed suggestions that GPS tracking is akin to Big Brother needlessly spying on police movements. He said knowing an officer s precise location improves safety in case the officer is hurt during a chase or attack and needs an ambulance or another police officer to find him quickly.

Steve Linhart, a captain for Elizabeth Township Area Emergency Medical Services, said GPS was installed in his department s 11 emergency vehicles last week — an upgrade from a previous, less reliable tracking system.

To know that our crew is following the speed limits is a big concern for us, Linhart said. There are so many ambulance crashes in the nation, it s ridiculous.

Richland-based Allied Communications installed the system, which can update Linhart on the location, speed and route of his ambulances every seven seconds.

It s good to know where people are when we need them, he said. Sometimes it s a little too easy for them to say we re not at the facility yet, and they re just eating at McDonald s trying to avoid another (nonemergency, privately financed) pickup.

At least one local government has used GPS to investigate an employee suspected of moonlighting on the job.

From May to June 2005, Franklin Park officials paid a private investigator $867 to use GPS to determine whether a building inspector was doing outside work on company time. The worker kept his job and the results of the investigation weren t made public.

Rick Macklin, president of Ambridge-based shipper Beemac Trucking, had GPS devices installed on 240 trucks not to threaten employees who might loaf, but to improve efficiency.

We tell truckers it s there. It s not something we re hiding from them, Macklin said. They go from the bad, You re going to watch me? attitude to Hey, that s OK, I m doing my job.

Macklin said the value of giving a shipping customer a precise time of arrival and avoiding countless phone calls from truckers checking in is priceless.

Jerry Campolongo, general manager of Yellow Cab Co. in Pittsburgh, said the company s 300 taxis work as independent contractors, but a central dispatching center knows where they are thanks to GPS.

Drivers only make money if there s someone in the back seat. GPS helps them, and it helps customers, he said.

Brian Stephens, policy director for the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, opposes GPS tracking of employees because it tramples on their privacy rights, particularly during lunch and off hours if workers take their vehicles home.

Maybe a bunch of the guys in the office went to a strip club for lunch, and then that information becomes available to the employer, Stephens said. Normally off-duty conduct is not an issue, but suddenly it could be.

In Indiana, six employees of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Department lost their jobs last year after an administrator switched three Global Positioning Satellite devices in and out of 12 department vehicles to nail health inspectors running personal errands on the job.

Employees were caught going to stores, gyms, restaurants, churches and their homes.

In Chicago, city workers were given GPS-enabled cell phones to track their movements on the job. City officials quelled initial protests from employees by allowing them to turn off the devices during lunch hours and after work.

Wayne Wagner, owner of Allied Communications in Richland, said few local governments are adopting the technology he sells, but he said they should to improve efficiency without the risk of forcing managers to single out poorly performing employees.

Everyone thinks it s about Big Brother watching them, but the main thing it s about is productivity, Wagner said. GPS doesn t care what nationality you are or if you re a nice guy. It doesn t lie.