Dec 31 2009

At Peterson Air Force Base, New IDEAs Take Flight

It's about saving costs, time and possibly lives.

Technical Sgt. Fred Itule didn't plan on becoming a poster boy for the Air Force's Innovative Development through Employee Awareness (IDEA) program. But exasperation—the cousin of all invention—forced his hand. Itule, a firefighter at Peterson Air Force base, routinely updated more than 6,000 pages of emergency response plans on hundreds of aircraft, thousands of hazardous chemicals and also the layouts of Peterson's buildings—information that firefighters need to ensure that they won't inadvertently add fuel to a fire.

In an emergency, response crews need to quickly become experts on the type of accelerants onboard an aircraft and the best way to extinguish the fire. Firefighters normally would have had to grapple with one of the 20-pound binders, riffling through pages of technical data providing in-depth profiles for 250 types of aircraft.

"If somebody dropped a book, all the papers would fall out," Itule recalls. "Spending all my time maintaining paper was driving me nuts."

Today, the cumbersome binders are gone from the Colorado Springs Air Force base. Instead, the emergency crew taps an electronic stylus on a Tablet PC screen, and an aircraft's profile instantly pops up. "It shows us all the hazards associated with the aircraft," says Itule.

The paper shuffle was also expensive: A four-pack of color ink cartridges cost $800, or about $1 a page, not including paper and personnel costs. "I decided there had to be an easier way," he says.

Using a Tablet PC to access a database of the formerly paper-only manuals was Itule's idea. It saves money, but more importantly, the time it saves firefighters could make the difference between life and death in a critical situation, such as a wheels-up landing.

Itule's idea earned him a $10,000 award from the Air Force IDEA program.

Sharing Ideas for 60 Years

Though Itule's idea was new, the Air Force's award program isn't. The Air Force has been rewarding both military and civilian members for their ideas since 1943. The service regularly shares any suggestions that have the potential to aid other military branches or the Department of Defense as a whole.

A logistics management specialist in the cruise missile product group at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base earned $10,000 last year when he showed that half of a planned $11 million purchase of conventional bomb modules was unneeded thanks to a separate upgrade project.

A suggestion for revisions to a federal blanket purchase agreement with a telecommunications supplier came from another Air Force employee. Instead of calculating volume-purchase savings annually, the new contract performed monthly recalculations, which netted an additional 15 percent in discounts per quarter. So far, the Air Force has saved about $4 million from the revision, and the mastermind is $10,000 richer.

Overall, the IDEA program annually receives nearly 10,000 suggestions from personnel stationed throughout the world, with about 20 percent receiving monetary awards ranging from $200 to $10,000. In fiscal 2003, the ideas saved the Air Force roughly $164 million.

Itule's idea was put to the test—and passed with flying colors—last fall when a prop-driven power glider from the nearby Air Force Academy came in with malfunctioning landing gear. With a few taps of a stylus, firefighters called up the information they needed.

Just a few weeks before the two-seat DA-20 made its—ultimately safe— emergency landing, Itule had finished the online database of 3,000 pages of aircraft technical documentation.

Itule's effort has boosted the firefighters' efficiency, and, even after buying the Tablet PCs, saved the base nearly $4,000 annually in printing costs.

"We take saving taxpayers' money very seriously," says Karyne Berman, IDEA program chief stationed at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. "Anytime an employee has a better way of doing business that will save the government time, money and resources, it is well received."

Itule spent about 20 hours converting archived aircraft data into Adobe PDF files, then linked a software icon to each of the aircraft types. Firefighters can click on the icon for an aircraft, and a complete dossier loads on the screen, showing all relevant technical and emergency details. Itule later expanded the online archive, adding data on hazardous chemicals and Peterson's buildings.

Though Itule doesn't consider himself an IT expert, he successfully tested his application on a desktop PC. Initially he considered running the application on notebook computers, but worried that the device wouldn't be convenient for firefighters in the field. While surfing the Web, he stumbled across Tablet PCs.

"Until then, I didn't even know they existed," Itule recalls. Lightweight and powerful, the Tablets also have input pens that let firefighters use them while wearing protective gloves. That's a big advantage over conventional keyboards. In choosing a Tablet PC, he contacted CDW•Government, a major supplier of the base's IT needs, which provided a free evaluation unit.

Kid-Tested for Ease of Use

With the hardware and software in place, Itule needed a tester. He found an ideal one in his five-year-old son. "I handed him the Tablet and showed him how to turn it on and use the pen," Itule explains. "I figured if my son could use it, anyone could use it."

When Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Coleman saw the application running on a Tablet PC, "the idea just exploded," Itule says. The chief told Itule to gather statistics showing the cost benefits so he could justify purchasing four Tablets and submit the plan to the IDEA program.

The 69-member Peterson firefighter staff uses two nonrugged Tablets, with plans to purchase four rugged ones. The units run a database application that organizes fire zone diagrams and pre-fire plans for emergency personnel. Swivel mounts ensure that the Tablet's screen is viewable by either person in the fire truck.

IDEA in Action

The Peterson base staff contributes about 100 ideas a year. "Most of our ideas involve maintenance improvements to aircraft, which give us the biggest bang for the buck," says Martha Bundrick, Peterson's IDEA program manager. "A lot of them also have IT components."

The Air Force Manpower and Innovation Agency determines the size of the cash awards based on a percentage of the tangible savings the idea produces. Award winners get 3 percent of the savings if the idea falls within their normal job responsibilities. To encourage thinking outside the box, ideas that help other areas reap 15 percent of the savings (up to $10,000), according to Bundrick.

Not every suggestion generates a clear monetary saving; many provide value in other ways. An idea for an advertising program to promote Peterson's underused daycare center garnered a $200 prize for a woman at the base. Recognition reaps benefits, regardless of the size of the award, Bundrick says. "We've found that folks who get a cash award definitely feel a morale boost."

The Air Force isn't the only service to recognize the value of creative thinking. The Marines and the Navy offer similar incentives. The Army Suggestion Program is even older than the Air Force's, dating from 1917. Like IDEA, it awards cash based on a percentage of the savings accrued from doing things better, says Brenda Scott, program manager at the Army's Strategic Management and Innovations Division in Arlington, Va.

Suggestions have saved "multimillions of dollars," Scott says. "A number of ideas focus on improved [computer] technology," she adds. The Army gets between 5,000 and 7,000 suggestions a year. About 20 percent result in an award. Suggestions that elicit the biggest savings earn a maximum of $25,000. Personnel whose ideas bring about quality of life or other intangible benefits may receive time off.

It's Not a Sure Thing

Although the armed forces have achieved successful results in paying for ideas, incentive programs aren't sure things, says John Haecker, president of Ascendant International Consulting, a Vienna, Va., management consulting firm that has clients in the federal government and private industry. "The benefits to an organization depend on how the program is tailored," he says. "Generally, money in itself is not a motivator."

Haecker says the value of the Air Force's IDEA program lies in its bottom-up approach, where even lower-ranking personnel are encouraged to suggest large-scale changes. "It's really a type of empowerment when an employee knows that he or she is being heard," Haecker says. "The fact that they can submit their idea and know it's being reviewed by top management is a great motivator," he adds.

Even individuals who don't contribute ideas could be influenced by incentive programs, he adds. "Everyone sees what's important to the organization."

Peterson's Itule certainly understands what's important.

"My goal was to take simple existing technology," he says, "and bring it into the fire station so we could use it to our benefit. Whether I got the money or not didn't matter to me. I just wanted to improve the process."


Money is a motivator, but cash alone won't ensure an incentive program's success, experts say. To work well, a program also must:

• Provide feedback in a timely manner

• Take all ideas seriously, even those from the lowest ranks

• Have the support of top management

• Encourage people to think beyond their direct responsibilities

• Have the power to achieve large-scale changes.