For years, two-way radios were the most-used means of job-site communications, but wireless phones and combination wireless-phone/two-way-radio devices are expanding mobile communications options for construction companies. However, push-to-talk devices have not replaced conventional radios. The latest models are compact, powerful, easy to use and remain a dependable, economical way for workers to communicate with supervisors and each other without monthly time limits and service fees. But whether an electrical or datacom project requires hundreds of electricians or only a few, effective job-site communication is crucial for completing work efficiently, on time and under budget. Effective communication increases productivity and reduces the risk of mistakes and wasted time, directly impacting a project’s profitability.

“The value of what work gets done on a construction site is directly dependent upon how that work gets done,” said Chris Pitts, Sprint director of construction/field services industry solutions. “Because of the disparate and dynamic nature of a job site—lots of different people and different organizations in different places doing different things—communication is the most important contributing factor to effectiveness and efficiency of how work gets done. Timely exchange of information improves profitability.”

Each project is actually a community working in concert with varying communication and documentation requirements, Pitts said.

Supervisors in the field need to communicate with the office and suppliers and they need to immediately access workers who often are scattered over a wide area. These basic communication needs haven’t changed much over the years, but the devices for communicating have changed dramatically and provide greatly expanded communication options.

Wireless telephones and combination phone/two-way radios

Wireless telephones have been common on construction sites for two decades, and in 1993, Nextel (now a part of Sprint) introduced Direct Connect combination wireless phone/two-way radio equipment and service. Construction personnel quickly saw the benefits of these combined capabilities, and in 2003, Nextel initiated National Direct Connect.

To address the range of today’s construction communications needs, Pitts said Sprint has a range of devices and services that operate on phones, PDAs, handhelds and other wireless devices.

“Wireless phones have become much more than phones with the advent of cameras, Java operating systems, GPS and the ability to support peripherals, such as bar-code scanners,” Pitts said. “The wireless phone is the Swiss Army knife of construction communications. For daily operations, wireless phones have applications to manage the work force, including payroll time entry directly to the accounting system from the field, with location validation if needed. Most phones today also do text messaging, and several do e-mail, another communication cornerstone in the construction business. Text messages can range from simple activity dispatch assignments to short questions and responses. E-mail is part of the documentation, and job logs [are] core to most significant projects.”

Push-to-talk radio capabilities of combination devices provide immediate voice connection to conduct two-way radio communication.

“Functionality,” Pitts said, “expands with mail service that allows a user to use Nextel Direct Connect to speak and record a message to anyone with an e-mail address. This allows the site superintendent to send a request for information or response to the home office, general contractor or others easily and as a voice file that can be stored with project records. Our push-to-send capability uses the phone’s camera to show a site condition, often easier than trying to explain.”

The next layer of capability, Pitts said, includes delivering and managing punch lists to the appropriate people in the field. Lists can define the next steps in the project: quality review inspection items, open work details and warranty items to be addressed.

“Having this information in the phone or PDA that is always on the job improves responsiveness, project documentation and job quality,” he said.

Verizon Wireless is another major supplier of communication tools and services for construction markets.

“The mobility of wireless technology has certainly changed the way people communicate,” said Bruce Bocian, manager, vertical data sales, construction. “Verizon push-to-talk service allows a contracting company to manage and track job status by quickly contacting subcontractors from anywhere in the coverage area—either via one-on-one or group conversations. With our wireless sync push e-mail service, a foreman can check the delivery status of materials and use this information to decide where to dispatch crews, reducing lost time and labor costs.”

The VZ Navigator on a handheld device gives personnel access to driving directions to job sites, helping them reach destinations faster.

“Project managers using real-time wireless access to information and vendors with our broadband access service can generate and share detailed punch lists on-site to make sure issues are taken care of the first time,” Bocian said. “Additionally, with broadband access and notebooks, a foreman can have wireless remote access to OSHA regulations and building codes on-site, helping to achieve compliance.”

The Field Force Manager feature uses location-based services on select Verizon Wireless mobile phones to allow businesses to map the location of remote workers and job sites, monitor work activities, and schedule, dispatch and receive fleet, job and status reports.

Text messaging, once used primarily by teenagers, is moving to the business world and is a valuable tool for construction personnel, Bocian said.

“More users recognize the convenience and privacy afforded by a quick message sent to another wireless phone,” he said. “Need to provide a quick address change from the original order to a supplier who is scheduled to drop off a load of materials? Text messaging can accomplish that task quickly and efficiently, and the recipient doesn’t need to write down the information because it can be saved on the phone.”

Many wireless device choices

When evaluating various wireless communications plans, contractors face a daunting task of selecting the equipment best suited to their companies’ needs. Knowledgeable sales personnel can help, but plan provisions often are confusing. And the cost of devices can be a significant expense when large quantities are needed. Does everyone on the job need a device, and if not, who does?

“Verizon Wireless Nationwide plans all offer in-network calling, so customers can talk to other Verizon Wireless customers without using their plan minutes,” Bocian said. “Even without push-to-talk, a contractor who has all of his or her employees on a Verizon Wireless plan can talk without worrying about plan minutes. New unlimited plans may be the best option for a business that wants the freedom of not worrying about plan minutes. For $99, customers can talk to any of their employees, vendors or suppliers, regardless of the carrier that any of them use, as much as they want, as often as they want.”

Regarding instruments, Bocian said flexibility is important with phones that can be used in traditional ways as well as push-to-talk.

“Every worker on a job site plays a role in keeping that job on schedule,” Pitts said. “Supervisors simply cannot be everywhere at once, so enabling every worker to easily and instantly communicate with every other worker is critical. As the types of communications increase, so does the value of the communication. Avoiding delays, eliminating paperwork, providing more accurate and timely information all drive value directly to the bottom line of a construction project.”

For devices used on construction sites, Pitts said, ruggedness is essential. A tool that won’t work is useless.

“Simplicity also is important,” he said. “There is no easier or faster way for workers to communicate with one another or with entire groups, intra- or inter-company, on or off the job site, than by simply pushing a button.”

Two-way radios

Remaining the standard for job-site communications, two-way radios are in wide use on many projects.

“Combination phone/two-way-radio devices have seen an increase in usage by construction personnel,” said Claudia Rodriguez, Motorola senior business manager, professional-commercial radios. “Even so, two-way radios continue to play a very vital role for on-site communication needs among construction personnel. On-site, two-way-radio communication enables foremen, subcontractors and individual tradespeople to keep projects on track through better coordination of personnel and materials. Construction personnel face daily challenges of worker safety and liability; the utilization of two-way-radio communication enables workers to coordinate quickly and respond to accidents and emergencies.”

Radio suppliers have a different answer to the job-site communication problem than wireless service providers: the efficiency and economy of two-way-radio communications.

“Only a few employees truly require wide-area access via phone communication,” Rodriguez said. “With utilization of these communication devices on construction sites, monthly service and airtime usage are a recurring cost. With on-site, two-way-radio communications, there are no per-call charges or monthly fees. Furthermore, personnel will also not be distracted by personal phone calls during critical business operations. Two-way radios help keep leaner work crews focused on the job at hand and keep projects moving along, avoiding costly delays.”

Today’s two-way radios designed for construction applications offer many improvements over older models. They are rugged and water resistant, and many models are more powerful, providing wider coverage. Lithium-ion batteries provide longer talk times per charge.

Rodriguez cited Motorola’s RDX series, which she said is 30 percent louder than previous models.

“With 2,000 mW audio output, speaker magnetic field reduction, wind-noise reduction and improved [radio frequency] specifications, these radios deliver superior audio quality,” she said. “Durable metal cases hold up under demanding conditions and meet military standards for shock, rain, humidity, salt fog, vibration, sand, dust, temperature shock, and high and low temperatures.”

The series can provide coverage up to 350,000 square feet, up to 30 floors of a multistory structure.

Finally, Rodriguez said, two-way-radio user interface makes them easy to use with little or no training required.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.