Photo by Tom Sawyer
Smart Pick: Sonim's XP3340 is durable and will call if you fall.
Photo courtesy of URS Corp.
Instant Message: Just speaking into a NoteVault-equipped phone routes time-stamped observations and attached photos into a report e-mailed for approval.

Jobsite communication tools are appearing as fast as device makers and app builders can churn them out—just keeping up could be a full-time job.

But contractors don't need another full-time job. They just need to share critical project information quickly in the simplest, most reliable way.

For years, Nextel's push-to-talk phones were the standard in construction, with PTT's instant voice contact at the touch of a button. But Nextel's network is shutting down next June, and its remaining 5.4 million customers will have to move on.

However, these disruptions bring opportunities to upgrade systems. Besides, phones can do so much more now than they could.

Brent Leif, a construction manager with the Hunt Construction Group, started reaching for more in 2008 as his team launched a hotel project in Phoenix. "We were using a variety of phones—some Blackberries and some Nextel—just using the speed-dial number," he says. Then one of his engineers returned from a conference describing a presentation on NoteVault, a telephone-based service that uses a call-in number to capture time-stamped comments from the field and automatically turn them into e-mailed reports.

"After I tried it I was convinced," said Leif. "I opened it up to our safety guy, and it caught on and got wider and wider use."

NoteVault has gained sophistication with the growing use of smart phones. Now offering an app interface, it has features such as the ability to attach photos. It has a keyword notifier that sends an alert to a pre-set list of users if trigger words, such as "delay" or "held up," are used. Leif now is ramping up a $120-million convention-center project in San Jose, Calif., and he is distributing iPhones with the NoteVault app to all key team members.

"Once the guys have gotten used to using it, they do it all day long," Leif says. "It makes them stop and think, grab the phone and make the statement. They really like it, and they don't even have to think about writing reports—it just happens."

Clifford Cooper, a program manager with URS Corp. in Seattle, has two construction management projects on the system, each with very different hardware. One team is removing dams and restoring streambeds in Washington state's Olympic National Park; the other is renovating a federal courthouse in downtown Denver. Cooper says he is very pleased with NoteVault, but he has had a devil of a time getting phone coverage—in Denver.

On both jobs, he started with AT&T and NoteVault installed on extremely rugged Sonim phones engineered specifically for construction. But coverage was so bad in the courthouse he switched to the iPhone, which can hold reports in memory if service drops and send them later.