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California City Employs Innovative Merger of Sweepers and Cameras

by Keith Chambers Palmdale logo

The City of Palmdale, California, serves 127,000 people within its 103 square mile boundary. Sweepers clean up 22,000 curb miles a year. In 1997 the city was hit with a financial crunch that resulted in having maintenance pulled back in-house. Since then, Palmdale's administrators have focused on finding cost-effective ways to provide better levels of service. This has resulted in a leading edge program that targets public safety and street infrastructure repair -- as well as provides proof of where and when a sweeper has swept -- via a camera mounted on the dash of the city's sweepers. Our interview features Terry Connell, deputy director of public works, and George Upegui, superintendent of maintenance, for the City of Palmdale.

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Ernesto Rodriguez, the sweeper operator who wished he had a camera in his sweeper.

Connell and Upegui have developed a system of mounting a video camera inside their sweeper cabs, to record what their drivers see. A microphone is located near the operator, enabling him or her to record comments onto the tape. Although the impetus for the system was a citizen complaint questioning whether their neighborhood had been swept, the program's primary use is for identifying problems within the city's infrastructure: potholes, hanging limbs, sidewalk disrepair, etc.

Both men were working for the city when California's Proposition 218 was passed, leaving Palmdale hard pressed for revenue to continue its street landscape maintenance district operations. The loss of funding caused by 218 would have required the City to significantly reduce its maintenance staff and possibly its ability to provide key services in the event of an emergency situation. Here's what happened.

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Dashboard-mounted camera.
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View from sweeper cab looking over the top of the camera. Looking back are George Upegui, left, and Terry Connell.

"The city, in order to save the jobs of valued employees, decided to start handling street maintenance on its own," Connell said, "and that included street sweeping. Prior to that, Palmdale had contracted with Los Angeles County to do the job.

"Although Palmdale is a small city, its road systems are varied and intricate because we have both urban and rural street sections. We sweep every week in most of our business core, and our residential areas are swept once a month.

We also do some amount of complaint and emergency sweeping as needed. It adds up to about 22,000 curb miles a year. The first two sweepers we started with in 1997 were Schwarze A7000s, and they're still in action for us. Today we have a total of 5 sweepers, three air machines and two mechanical broom units.

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Note camera in center bottom of windshield.

"Our camera program was actually the result of talking to Ernesto Rodriguez, one of our sweeper operators. He was complaining because he had recently swept a street when somebody called saying that the area hadn't been swept. He said something on the order of 'I wish I'd had a camera in my sweeper.' The more we thought about it, the better an idea it seemed to be."

Prior to incorporating cameras in their sweepers, Palmdale public works managers identified trouble spots by having a supervisor drive the streets twice a year looking for problems. "Our camera program is a real manpower saver," said Upegui, adding that the camera system is innovative because it serves multiple purposes within the single video.

Because sweepers repeat their routes throughout the city at least every month, and do so at a slow speed, their video log has proved to be an effective way to locate infrastructure needs in addition to providing proof of where the sweepers operate.

"Like everyone," Upegui continued, "we have residents who call in and tell us something like 'I've been living here for a year and have never seen a sweeper come by.' Our camera program, with it's date-stamping, is the most effective response we can offer. It also has a day-to-day purpose for infrastructure inspection, revealing where attention is needed on trees, curb-and-gutter, low spots where water is collecting, sidewalks in disrepair and all the other sorts of problems that can occur out there."

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Camera is adjusted to show curb, gutter, sidewalk and approximately half of street width. The detail of the video is sufficient to identify low branches, cracked/raised sidewalks, potholes, water line leaks, graffiti, etc.

"Our sweeper-based camera system is simplistic, yet efficient," Connell said. "We don't use anything fancy -- just off-the-shelf video cameras. By purchasing them through a 'police equipment company, we could get them with a mounting bracket on the camera. We mount them on the dash of the sweeper chassis. We also use a standard microphone and locate it where the operators can make verbal notes of anything they spot that needs work. Our manager review system allows us to scan directly to those notes, so we can handle these needs quickly. The system also provides evidence that a sweep was made, if we get a complaint. We archive all the tapes onto date-stamped CD-ROMs, and keep them for 7 years as a legal reference."

"If we get a complaint that an area was missed," Upegui said, "we can burn a copy of date-coded CD and deliver it to a resident, or provide them with still photos of the street in front of their residence as it is being swept on that date. It's something a contract sweeper might consider doing, too, because if someone doubts that you're doing the job, or there's a question of how much debris was on the site prior to cleanup, you can show them pictures of what the site looked like before you swept it.

"Since Palmdale doesn't implement a 'no parking' system for sweeping days, another thing we look for is areas where parked cars are keeping us from keeping the streets cleaned. For that purpose, it's just like having a supervisor in the machine."

Every day, the sweeping videos are reviewed by the city's street maintenance supervisor. Although this might sound like a time-consuming process, most of the time a supervisor can review the tape at a brisk pace. Initially, they determine if the operator made any audio notes, as the result of any problems that were noticed. Any such information is forwarded to office staff, who prepare a work order that identifies the problem and assigns corrective action to a specific maintenance crew. The city uses a computerized maintenance management system (CitiTech Management Software) to monitor cost and productivity for all maintenance activity, including sweeping.

"One of the nice things this program does is generate around 150 work requests a year for services like tree problems, low spots and street repair," Upegui said. "It conserves quite a bit of time, as compared to our previous twice-a-year inspections. For most routes, the supervisor who's reviewing it can go through the tapes rather quickly. With the push of a button, the tape will flash to the area where the audio comments were input by the operator, then pause the tape so the information can be noted. And, detailed information is there if we want or need it."

In addition to increasing the information base about street conditions, the program has had the added benefit of boosting the professionalism of the sweeper operators.

Originally, Connell told us, the plan was to put the camera on one of their supervisor's pickup trucks, but they decided the sweeper operators would have a more detailed picture because they sweep at approximately five miles per hour. "Our city maintenance and maintenance support staff perform their jobs extremely well, with regards to sweeper operations, sweeper uptime and unit maintenance. They want to do their best every time they sweep," Connell added. "The addition of the camera system, although simple, works for us and we're proud of it. I think our sweeper operators are our best eyes and ears out there. They see the roads all the time, so are able to spot places where something has changed for the worse. The camera program provides another facet to their jobs, and it's an important one. Plus, it saves us a half-time position of having someone drive around inspecting for the same thing. That's a good savings, and it allows maintenance to focus more resources on services while maintaining a high level of public safety.

Though the program may sound costly, Palmdale's system, which includes six cameras and a VHS-to-CD-ROM converter, cost just under $10,900. "For that amount of money, we have an outstanding, ongoing program," Upegui said. "It's efficient and we're keeping the complaints down. We're taking a proactive approach to dealing with issues the city might not notice otherwise, but that are important to us to solve early on, and doing it before they escalate. We all believe that performance and service are the name of the game, and this program allows us to improve both."


Keith Chambers is a freelance writer who makes his home in the Northwest. You may reach Palmdale's Terry Connell via email sent to tconnell@cityofpalmdale.org.

This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 9 Number 1.
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