When I first asked Laura Raymond, the systems administrator for Reinauer Transportation, how Reinauer’s fleet of barges and tugs communicates with its offices on land she told me, “With pigeons.”
While I expect pirates to keep parrots, I couldn’t quite believe that a company that started 80 years ago with a single converted fishing boat, with offices open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and a staff of 450 employees—most of whom are out at sea—really communicated effectively via carrier pigeon.
So when I asked again, “Really, reports were transmitted by pigeon?” Raymond laughed and said, “No. They weren’t transmitted at all. The guys had to pick up paper and fill out forms when the boat came into the yard.” Which is even less efficient than pigeons.
The Reinauer Maritime Group transports petroleum and petroleum products throughout the northeastern United States, sometimes ranging as far as Florida. And though Reinauer, with offices in Staten Island and East Boston, has tried various communications systems over the years (pigeons not included), nothing fit its needs as an expanding offshore operation.
“We had lots of paperwork,” explains Raymond, “too much paperwork if you ask the guys on the boats.” And understandably, between the weekly reports, hitch reports, payroll reports, accident reports, equipment reports, supply reports, safety drills and security drills, anyone would resort to throwing forms overboard.
Reinauer also needed a reporting upgrade in order to gain International Safety Management (ISM) and International Safety Organizations (ISO) certifications, both of which require detailed documentation of all policies, procedures and operations. This, of course, means more paperwork and a timely system with which to control the flow.
“There was no reporting cycle before,” says Raymond, “because some of the barges don’t come in for months. They’d have to rely on other boats to bring in their work. Paperwork was going missing, and supplies weren’t getting out because by the time orders got to the warehouse—two, three or four weeks later—the boats needed more stuff.”
Reinauer had tried different wireless communication solutions. One was a satellite solution called Boatrac, which charged per character. Next were Nextel phones and fax machines, which did enable the boats to send more data, “but faxes don’t always work.”
Reinauer was looking for something reliable and capable of sending more data—“Not just one-liners like a Western Union telegram”—and communicating back and forth. “We needed to correspond. Things had to be described and discussed,” says Raymond. “Originally, we were looking for better cell phone service. Then we looked at smartphones and PDAs, but we realized the guys were losing their cell phones overboard so they’re gonna lose these, too.” Reinauer then looked for something bigger, such as laptops. “We were worried about giving computers to mariners who are not exactly tech savvy,” Raymond relates, “but we went for it anyway!”
And so far, so good. Reinauer has 52 ships set up with Dell Latitude 500 and 505 notebooks, Hewlett Packard 1200 printer/copier/scanner all-in-one machines, Konica digital cameras and Sierra Wireless 555 AirCards with service from Verizon Wireless.
Now paperwork and reports are finished and sent in on time. There’s an application that tracks correspondence and sends e-mail reminders, “Your report is due.” Payroll and supplies ordering also runs much smoother, because now paperwork is filed in real time. Requests for maintenance are also entered as needed, instead of waiting to dock. Raymond is pleased with the results. “The response time and the turnaround time to get anything done, not just projects but anything, has really improved.”
Crews can take digital photos and e-mail them to engineers back at the yard, so maintenance crews know exactly what the problem is without the boat having to return or a repair crew to be sent out. “You couldn’t explain something like that in a [ship-to-shore] transmission without it costing hundreds or thousands of dollars,” says Raymond.
And despite initial concerns, she is pleased to report that everyone seems to be getting the hang of it. Training was pretty simple in that Raymond would take a laptop loaded with the AirCard, a printer and a camera onto the boat with her, “then I stay on the boat till they all get it.”
There were, of course, some bumps at the beginning, such as a few broken keyboards, dead batteries, one smashed screen and a few “old timers who ‘don’t need that thing to steer.’” But as Raymond understood from the beginning, “We hired our crews because of their boat handing capabilities, not their computer skills.”
Which is all the more reason the Reinauer team is so pleased to see some results it never expected. “There’s a lot more than just reports going back and forth. It started as that and then bloomed into something that none of us could have predicted,” she explains. “It turned into an open door into the office. If something happens, right away they’re on the computer talking to each other. Anybody can talk to anybody now—the barges can talk to each other, the tugs can talk to us, we can talk to them. It really bonded and joined the company.”
Of course, it’s not all e-mail and roses. Reception is still a problem for boats out on the open ocean (particularly barges, which when full sit very low in the water, sometimes with the holds actually below the waterline). Raymond says you’d be surprised how good the reception is in some places, and the Reinauer crews have mapped out the dead spots so they know when they’re going into one. And Raymond is looking for longer-range external antennas that can survive the harsh conditions the boats do.
Reinauer hasn’t done an ROI analysis, because it doesn’t see that as where the profit really rests. “This is an investment in the company itself,” Raymond says. “We’re constantly looking at anything that will bring the boats closer to us.”•