When you picture a bus garage, what do you see? A couple of lifts? Tools everywhere? A wall of random parts?
The 21st century garage has expanded beyond paper work orders for minor repairs and outsourcing for the major ones. School bus technicians posses not only the technology, but the skills required to use what the industry has been readily offering.
“Our new facility is a testament to the progressive thinking and overwhelming support of the community, the board of education, district employees, and the foresight of our superintendent,” said Chuck Tanzer, transportation director of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., City Schools. “The concept behind the construction was longevity, to be able to serve the needs of the district for a minimum of 50 years.“
The facility, which was completed in April 2004, consists of 10 service bays, which includes four maintenance bays with bus lifts, four flat bays, a body shop bay and a paint booth bay, a bus wash and indoor storage for special needs buses. Radiant floor heating speeds up the melting process on the oftentimes snow-covered central New York buses, and also helps keep the floors dry. The inclusion of the paint booth, as well as the presence of a full-time employee who can perform body work, allowed Tanzer to complete an overhaul of a bus that was damaged after it went off the road and was saved from rolling over by a large tree. Damage to Bus 321, which was estimated at approximately $30,000, was repaired almost entirely in-house, with the exception of the straightening the frame.
“Our body shop and paint booth are set up end-to-end, which allows us to place a bus in the paint booth without exiting the building,” said Tanzer. “They are utilized on a daily basis for repairs as small as a scratch to major body repair and painting.”But the bells and whistles don’t end there. When building the new facility, the forward-thinking district included mobile air purifiers for welding and metal cutting, in-floor exhaust abatement equipment, full metal fabricating equipment, the most up-to-date diagnostic equipment available, a 100kw diesel-powered generator with the capacity to power the entire building during a power outage, and a fluid-dispensing room with automated fluid-dispensing equipment and a waste motor oil and spilled fluid reclamation system.
“Modern technology has assisted our staff in many ways,” said Tanzer. “Vehicle diagnostic software has enabled us to more easily diagnose vehicle electronic system failures and drivetrain monitoring devices.”As a host to the recent NewYork Department of Transportation conference and many other industry events, Tanzer and his staff have received numerous compliments on their garage.
One visitor commented, “‘If I died tomorrow, I’d have seen school bus heaven in Saratoga Springs,’” Tanzer recalled.
Saratoga Springs City School District is not the only one receiving praise for the maintenance of their fleets. The transportation division of Chandler Unified School District has garnered its fair share of admiration. The constantly growing department keeps all 177 of its buses in pristine condition.
“We take great pride in our fleet,” said Connie Draper, director of transportation. “We have had people think that some of the buses were much newer than they actually were because of the care that has been taken to keep them in top shape.”
What began as a parts warehouse, maintenance building and transportation facility rolled into one was recently turned over completely to transportation. The rapid growth of the district also brought about the construction of a second yard for the east half of the district, and the investment in a facility that will be shared with the town of Gilbert. Draper, who moved to Arizona from New York in 2003, is also proud of the fact that all district sites will be linked to one network, a system that manages inventory, work orders and diagnostic work on all engines and transmissions.
“This will be especially important, since we will have three locations that will need the ability to keep shared records for the department,” said Draper. “The guys work their hardest to keep on top of the latest technology that is out there. We look at programs, materials and equipment to see if the product would be worthwhile for our district.”Many of these programs not only keep everyone in the department connected and on the same page, they can help monitor the maintenance of each bus in the district. According to Draper, the Chandler Unified buses are set up on a day schedule rather than a mile schedule, with each bus serviced every 72 days. Instant messaging and e-mails keep the shop and dispatch in constant communication.
“The mechanic can access the record of that bus to see if there are any work orders outstanding on that vehicle, and those items will be taken care of at the same time,” said Draper. “Our primary goal is to have safe buses on the roads to transport our children to and from school and on every trip.”
Computers and the software that is now available to maintenance workers have not only cut down on the workload, they can make an entire department run more efficiently. David Anderson, the director of transportation for Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Broomfield, Colo., and the district’s former fleet manager, has also made an assertive effort to keep up with all the recent advancements.
“The industry has brought most of the changes due to technology,” said Anderson.
“The main change is that technicians today must be trained and retrained continually if they have any chance of keeping up with the sweeping technological changes.”
He has instituted engine programs provided by CAT, International and Cummins; brake diagnostic programs like those from Bendix and Wabco for ABS repairs; and Allison Transmission programs. The training programs, which range in cost between $1,000 and 2,000 each, shorten the time usually spent on diagnosing an initial malfunction. The department also purchased electronic diagnostic equipment to analyze electrical systems on buses and support fleet vehicles to check multiple batteries and charging systems in a matter of minutes.
“We also have the CCG/Faster fleet program, which allows us to analyze what we do, compare repairs, look for patterns, monitor Technician progress and have accurate inspection records,” said Anderson. “When we complete an inspection, we hook up the laptop and check for trouble codes and issues, which may have not yet shown any symptoms. All of the programs can be pro-active in repairing an issue that may be potentially damaging if let go.”
One company that is helping many school districts keep up with pre- and post-trip inspections, maintenance issues and even student checks, is Zonar. Best known for its EVIR, or electronic vehicle inspection report, the system has been cutting work time and keeping costs down for many transportation departments.
“We’ve been using the Zonar system for a little over two years,” said Dean Humphrey, transportation director at Pendergast School District in Phoenix. “It has cut down on my repairs. I can see what buses are down, what the mechanics are doing and whether they are minor or major repairs. It’s a way to manage data without hiring more staff and a way to hold everyone accountable, even the transportation director.”
With the use of a wireless handheld reader, drivers communicate the information for their inspections by uploading it to a system that can be accessed by other maintenance employees. By pointing the device at strategically placed RFID tags around the bus, drivers can record information on the brake system, tire pressure, stop lights, and so on.
“There is also a student check RFID tag at the back of the bus that sends me a warning after 20 minutes if the bus has not been checked for children that may have fallen asleep,” said Humphrey.
The system also offers GPS services to its customers. Fleet employees can identify the exact location of buses, check speed reports and look up arrival and departure times.
“It takes the mistrust and the he said/she said out of the process,” said Humphrey.It’s just one more way technology is helping school bus garages stay ahead of problems and keep their eyes on the road ahead.
Reprinted from the March 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.
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