If you’ve ever installed a stereo in your car, you know about all the little things involved: the connections that have to be made, the wires that have to be run, and so on. Imagine doing that more than 1,000 times. Now imagine having to communicate what your doing to a school district with 14 different transportation managers that have to worry about ferrying 170,000 students to 170 different schools.
It sounds impossible, but with the help a dedicated staff and an open line of communication between the vendor and the district, large-scale GPS installs are going from mission impossible to mission attainable.
Setting the Stage for Others
The relationship between Orange County Public Schools, in Orlando, Fla., (OCPS) and Everyday Wireless has resulted in 1,100 of the districts 1,500 buses now being instantly located with the help of GPS systems.
OCPS is a pioneer in the field of school bus GPS application. As one of the country’s larger district-owned fleets, they constantly field questions from other districts interested in the technology.
“We’re happy that we were able to help shape the industry,” said Arby Creach, director of transportation for OCPS. “A lot of school districts think that when you buy a GPS system, you just install it and forget about it. My suggestion is to understand that you have to commit resources early on and continue to do so throughout the entire process for the life of the product.”
The initial installs began in late 2004 and were finished at the beginning of the 2006 school year. During the first round of installs, an Everyday Wireless vice president collaborated with two of the district’s mechanics to find the best place for the systems. The installation process, which used to take about two hours, now takes less than an hour.
“We purchase about 100 to 150 buses every year, about 10 percent of our fleet, so we are constantly adding new systems,” said Creach.
Although the systems give drivers a sense of safety and security, especially in these days and times, Creach still deals with employees who intentionally sabotage the system.
“Some drivers will break the antennae or unplug it. We changed the antennas to ones that don’t collapse and can withstand being hit with a baseball bat. We also locked the electrical panels and made the connections tamper-proof. If they are messed with, a seal is broken and we know,” said Creach.
The transportation managers, who collectively cover 850 square miles, have also become big fans of the systems, especially with the makeover their school vehicles have received. The district installed laptop computers with a wireless Internet card and an ink jet printer in each of their cars. There is also a two-way digital radio that allows them to connect to 911 service while in route. They can see and talk to the drivers, and be in route to their location, all at once.
“The managers love it. When they’re in their cars, they’re in their offices,” said Creach. Another safety measured added to the system that has both managers and drivers feeling more secure is the panic button that can send a message to the dispatch center when a driver is in a situation where they can not make a traditional call. The manager can then locate the bus and will drive up next to the bus to determine what’s happening and then make the appropriate call from there.
Creach’s district has experienced another added benefit of the system, cost savings. “We’ve saved 10 percent across the board. In a $50- to 58-million budget, that’s a chunk of change that goes back into the classrooms,” added Creach.
“Conservatively, the Everyday Wireless system can reduce a districts annual operating cost by 5 to 10 percent per year. This equates to a bottom line savings of between $2,000 to $5,000 per bus per year,” said Dave Pettine, vice president of sales and marketing for Everyday Wireless. “However, the non-quantifiable benefits of increased safety, security and service are even greater.”
Staying Ahead of Problems
Four years ago Dallas County, Texas, Schools started with four separate pilot program with four different GPS providers. Using what they learned to create a competent and comprehensive request for proposals, the district had fewer options to choose from than school districts now have available.
“When we started, GPS was mostly used in the trucking industry and there was very little presence in the school bus industry,” said Leatha D. Mullins, chief technology officer for Dallas County Schools. “You can’t do a project this size without a great team. It takes transportation, fleet maintenance and technology to develop and institutionalize a project of this scale.”
After deciding on Everyday Wireless, Mullins and her team began a project that continually evolves. The systems are now present in 1,475 school buses that cover 907 square miles of Texas. One of the main reasons for the district’s final vendor selection was attributed to the fact that they wanted to able to integrate the units with their existing radios and routing software, which Everyday was willing to do.
“We had to go through a lot of updates and a learning curve. The dynamics of the changing data every day — route changes, student information — had to be worked through,” said Mullins.
Like OCPS, drivers were a little hesitant at first to use the systems. But after seeing that the information recorded by the units could help prove how well they were doing their jobs, they changed their tunes.
“We have an in-house product called Q Control. Calls come in with complaints about buses being late or not stopping. We got a positive response from the drivers because now we could prove at what time drivers arrived at stops, how long they were there and so on,” said Mullins. “An ACLU attorney even said it was the best use of technology in school bus transportation in a Fox News story. It’s gotten the drivers’ attention and helped them realize how important their role is in the safety of students.”
The drivers are not the only district employees who have benefited from the system. The fleet mechanics now have a early-bird warning system that warns them about possible problems. Around 4 a.m. each day, a wake-up call signal, or “heart beat,” is sent out to all the buses. From this information gathered every morning, the system creates wellness reports on the entire bus fleet.
“We look at the information we get from every part of the system. They allow us to be proactive about the maintenance of the systems,” said Mullins.
The report provides graphical, table and text analyses of each unit in the fleet and categorizes them, according to Pettine. The transportation director receives a fleet report via e-mail every morning.
“This enables them to maximize the uptime of their fleet. It gives them preventative maintenance or trouble shooting tips for certain units,” said Pettine.
Reprinted from the July 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.
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