Hand-held communication devices offer better management practices for turfgrass professionals

If turfgrass managers could list one type of equipment that has had the most positive effect on their ability to manage in the last 50 years, it probably isn’t a gang mower or even an irrigation controller. It would probably be a device that has given them an extreme degree of mobility and efficiency: the Smartphone.

Above: Neil Bales and several other employees of Lawns of Dallas find their company-provided Blackberries indispensable.
Photo courtesy of lawns of Dallas.

The Smartphone is one of a group of hand-held communication and computation devices that allow a turfgrass professional to manage from anywhere. Smartphones are handy everywhere, but are most useful on large turf facilities. Anthony Williams, superintendent of Stone Mountain Golf Club by Marriott in Stone Mountain, Ga., and his assistants use Smartphones for communications, PR, project efficiency and documentation. “It’s a topic that is running through the industry now,” says Williams, who has worked for Marriott for 24 years and is president of the Georgia chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. He bought his first hand-held device about six years ago, a Palm Pilot used to help control irrigation; now he raves about his Smartphone. He calls it a “huge boost for productivity.”

The obvious first use, which can be accomplished by any cell phone, is voice communications. Also, Williams says, “You have a small office to carry with you.” That’s because he can get Internet coverage over the entire course. One of the biggest uses is for e-mail. He can access his account and do business within seconds.

Williams and his assistants are also able to access research articles, best management practices and Web sites if they have a question or problem. They can find photos of insects or disease symptoms to corroborate what they are seeing, and they can convey that information to each other. One of the most-used functions of the new smart phones, which have integrated digital cameras of 5 megapixels or more, is the ability to take quality photos, which Williams uses to document projects or other events.

Anthony Williams watches as his assistant, Andy Hutchinson, photographs irrigation plans so he can e-mail them to the field for repairs.
Photo courtesy of Stone Mountain Golf Club.
Lawns of Dallas is a company that is spread far and wide in its maintenance operations, and the use of Smartphones and their e-mail and photo functions help keep crews running smoothly.
Photo courtesy of Lawns of Dallas.

Williams and his assistants use both Blackberrys and iPhones. There are applications that can boost productivity by, for example, allowing smart phones to control irrigation, but that is for the future.

Lawns of Dallas is already there. Neil Bales, vice president of sales and marketing for the Dallas, Texas, landscape construction and maintenance company, says the company purchased Blackberrys for him and the general manager four years ago, and for several other employees two years ago.

“Our whole company uses Blackberrys,” Bales says, meaning field supervisors and upper-level management. For what he calls “minimum cost,” the company gains in many areas of management. “In the long run, the expense was worth it just for the communications capability.”

Bales says that eight to 10 company Blackberries are in use at any one time by supervisory personnel, at a cost of about $120 per month per phone for the air time in a package deal. Bales points out that the mobile units are invaluable for the phone service alone, and that applies to both the construction and maintenance sides of the operation. He also loves the e-mail function. Many of his supervisors are in the office only a couple of hours of the day and it benefits them, and the other staff who might be trying to get in touch with them, to have around-the-clock e-mail contact. That way, they can pick up messages when they have a free moment and make that connection.

By way of illustration, Bales says that before Blackberries, when he got an instruction or message he would write himself a reminder note to get to it later. Now, he can take out his Smartphone and complete the connection or accomplish the task via e-mail in the same amount of time. One unusual aspect of these Internet connections is the use of the phone’s free instant messaging service. Bales occasionally uses that to make chat “conference calls” to other staff, with the typing function being less disruptive of the day than a conference phone call. Employees also use the Microsoft Outlook calendar function to schedule their days and coordinate scheduling with other staff.

A smart phone, such as a Blackberry used by Luis and Sammy Treto at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Calif., can be an efficient organizing tool in the landscape industry.
Photo courtesy of Lawns of Dallas

Apart from staff communications, an even more important function of the Smartphone’s e-mail capability is its popularity with clients. They love to communicate with the company via e-mail, and many requests or problems can be handled with minimal energy if the e-mail is received in the field and answered immediately. Lawns of Dallas bills itself as a total service company, and Bales says that efficient communications with customers is a must.

Bales recalls an instance when he got an e-mail from a client about an emergency landscaping situation over a weekend while he was out of town. He forwarded it to a co-worker, who was able to take care of the problem. Bales got a thank-you e-mail from the client the same day. The whole process from the inception of the problem to the solution took only a few hours, and there’s a record of it afterward.

“When we get that message while we’re out in the field, we can handle that immediately. Time savings is something that sells,” Bales says. Crew foremen don’t have Smartphones, but they do use Nextel mobile phone/walkie talkies that allow them to receive phone and radio communications and relay them to other crews.

Bales loves the fairly high-resolution camera functions of these modern phones. Whether used to illustrate a problem and facilitate the solution, or to assist in a sales or marketing situation, photos have proven to be an effective way to communicate between staff and with clients. It can also help increase business, as a photo used in conjunction with a sales pitch allows the client to “envision the need” and OK a project without a lot of explanation.

The use of GPS with hand-held devices is fairly common at golf courses, but it is becoming useful at other types of facilities too. John Moore, director of facilities engineering and sustainability at the State University of New York at Oswego, says that the college underwent a huge campus GPS inventory of infrastructure in 2009. That data, combined with aerial photography, will give staff and contractors an exact location on any non-building feature, above or belowground. Hand-held devices will be crucial in implementation, possibly something as simple as a PDA.

Moore says that major landscaping features such as trees, shrubs and the perimeters of turfgrass plots were included in the survey, which was done by an outside contractor. Condition of the plants was also included. The idea is to locate and categorize all infrastructure features on a GPS system so that any feature can be found, even by new employees who don’t have a map of the campus in their heads. Workers who come in to repair a water valve or prune a tree, for example, may be able to check out a hand-held from the shop and use it to navigate around campus.

This could entail a succession of hand-held devices, says Moore, who points out that the college is in the early stages of compiling the mapping data and studying which hand-helds to utilize. A simple GPS device might suffice at first, with a more data-friendly PDA coming in later. Ultimately, it is feasible that Smartphones with GPS applications would be utilized because of their flexibility with other communications uses.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.