It took only seconds for 74-year-old David Lamey to check in at Anoka County Veteran Services on a recent afternoon, despite years having passed since his last visit.
With just a few soft finger taps, a staffer helped the Vietnam veteran key in his name, city, age and other facts on a touch-screen monitor. The information instantly went to veteran services officers.
"It's a pretty remarkable tool," Lamey said.
Now the digital check-in system is drawing attention from other agencies, with four counties requesting that Anoka County share the software. Since the system debuted in 2013, it has won the county a national award and been installed in places as far-flung as Orange County, Calif.
The automated system was developed by Anoka County's IT department to cut wait times, simplify data collection and make checking in more efficient for veterans seeking help with obtaining benefits.
The paperless process saves time and helps staffers better prepare for appointments with veterans, said John Kriesel, Veteran Services director.
"I like to think we're kind of on the forefront of what's going on," Kriesel said. "I like when counties contact us for our technology and not the other way around."
When Kriesel, a former Republican legislator, took over Anoka County's Veteran Services in 2012, he worked to digitize as much office work as possible, including the office's paper check-in process.
The kind of software Kriesel wanted to use could have cost up to $25,000, county officials said. Instead, Grant Peterson, a county IT developer, spent about 60 hours to build a system. Aside from staff time spent getting the system up and running, the software's only other cost was about $500 for the touch-screen monitor.
"We always look to build before we buy," said Susan Vreeland, IT department director.
When veterans arrive at the Veteran Services office, a large sign directs them to the screen, where they tap in personal information, the reason for their visit and how they were referred. Staffers then compile the information and look for broader data trends.
"It's better customer service for the veteran," Kriesel said. "It's giving us a heads-up of who is here and why."
The check-in software also has been adapted for use in license centers across Anoka County. The program garnered the county an achievement award from the National Association of Counties in 2014.
Other counties took notice of the streamlined process and asked Kriesel about the system. The first e-mail request came in 2013, from an agency more than 1,500 miles away.
A veteran services director in Orange County told Kriesel she had found out about Anoka County's system through web research and was looking for ways to "automate processes" and help accommodate an influx of veterans seeking assistance there, according to an e-mail.
She asked: Would Anoka County share the software? The IT department did, for free.
Since then, Olmsted, Carver and Stearns counties have also asked for the system, with Stearns' request approved last month by Anoka County's IT Committee.
Kriesel admits the program may not be as handy for a place that takes appointments rather than walk-in visits. But county officials using the software say it has made office life easier.
Olmsted County received the system in 2014, interested in its uses for data collection and its timesaving potential, said Neil Doyle, who heads up that county's Veteran Services Office.
"This thing paid for itself within a year of just time saving," Doyle said.
With the software, staffers in Olmsted County have also discovered that most veterans go there for help with Veteran Affairs healthcare enrollment and disability claims, Doyle said.
A question about medical insurance drew Lamey to the Anoka County office this week, where he arrived with his tiny Shih Tzu service dog, Bandit, close behind.
The Anoka resident hadn't used the office's check-in touch screen before, but said he caught on fairly quickly.
"And next time," he added, "I'll know how to operate the system."