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Pursuing a Sharper Image

When school bus seat backs were raised as a safety measure, it solved one problem but created another for Josh Rice, the director of transportation and fleet services in the New Caney Independent School District north of Houston. 

Traditional school bus camera surveillance technology and their configurations were rendered inadequate because the higher seat backs created “blind spots,” where some students—especially smaller, shorter ones—were out of the driver’s view. 

Rice addressed the issue by upgrading his camera system to a digital system and the creative positioning of six high-definition cameras. One camera covers the driver and the bus entrance, a bulkhead camera is over the driver’s head facing the rear; a third camera in the rear of the bus faces forward and a fourth dashboard camera faces the road ahead of the bus. The fifth and sixth cameras are staggered on both sides of the aisle facing in opposite directions. Problem solved and with a sharper image.

“We find that this eliminates all the blind spots we were experiencing,” Rice said. “When you’re dealing with student safety and student discipline, you always want to get the best view possible. Fifteen years ago, we had one camera in the front of the bus. Fortunately, those days are behind us.”

Rice said he’s not stopping there with camera technology, and the next bus order will come with an Internet Protocol (IP)-ready system.

“We’ve had HD systems for several years,” he said. “With IP cameras you’re getting near television quality images. IP cameras have better resolution so you have the ability to zoom in on people and objects without losing any of the quality.”

New Caney ISD is not alone in its pursuit of newer and better technology when it comes to camera surveillance systems on their buses. School bus operators appear to be trending toward upgrading their camera surveillance systems from the legacy digital systems to the more sophisticated, high-definition digital camera systems and IP systems. Rice and his counterparts nationwide cited increased student safety, affordability, convenience and staying ahead of the technology curve to avoid using equipment doomed to eventual obsolescence as reasons to establish a replacement cycle and stay with it.

The nearby Humble Independent School District has taken things a step further. Humble ISD Fleet Manager Ariel Rodriguez said the buses there feature HD cameras with Wi-Fi capability, giving the district the ability to download video without pulling the hard drive as well as the ability to view what’s happening inside the bus in real time when the bus is connected to a hotspot. 

Rodriguez said the ability to download the video without removing the hard drive extends the life of the hard drive and lessens the chance that it will be corrupted. The hard drives were upgraded to 2 TB on each bus. Rodriguez said the motivation for upgrading was that the old system was outdated, and that posed a threat to student safety. “The last thing we wanted was to have a camera fail in a critical situation,” he said. “We had situations on the bus where there was a camera failure and we could not view the video. To me that’s considered a safety issue and it needed to be dealt with immediately.”

Rodriguez said the Wi-Fi gives staff the time to react to situations in a timely manner. “If we get a call while the bus is in a Wi-Fi zone, supervisors, management and dispatch can look in live,” he said.  “We can tap into a bus from our smart phones for live feeds. That makes it so much easier.”

Robert Scott, vice president at 24/7 Security Inc., said he has noticed an “uptick” in interest in HD systems. “We’re seeing school districts becoming aware of HD so they are certainly starting to look at them. He said. “More and more HD camera systems are coming on the market.”

Curtiss Routh, vice president for sales at REI, said high-definition and IP cameras have been around for a while but school districts did not take notice because they were satisfied with the older technology of analog cameras. “We’re hearing about it more often because companies are using that as a differentiator from the competition,” Routh said. “Because they are pushing it to schools, schools are talking about it more.”

Tim Owen, transportation director for the Magnolia Independent School District just north of Houston, said moving from an old digital system to an updated system allows for a combination of a hybrid digital and solid state storage system that also features the redundancy of a secure digital (SD) memory card. Instead of pulling the hard drive, district staff simply remove the SD card to view the video, he added, and the SD card increases system durability, should the rigors of the road corrupt the hard drive. He said the new system is faster, easier and more efficient. Similar systems are in use in other school districts.

Owen added that the newer system will save the district money in the long run because the older systems will be phased out eventually and the district wouldn’t be able to find replacement parts. “If we want to remain on the cutting edge, this is what we need to do,” he said. “The administration and school board bought into it for the safety of our kids and everybody else involved.”

The Houston Experience

The Houston Independent School District has been upgrading for some time, according to senior fleet manager Andres Montes, installing Wi-Fi on about half of the fleet’s 1,100 buses. Montes called the upgrades a natural evolution. “We went to high definition to download videos more efficiently,” he said. “Also, we wanted to be able to pinpoint more clearly when we have issues with traffic, students or even with drivers. Traffic here is heavy. When there are accidents we need to see who is at fault, and a lot of times the public is at fault.”

Houston uses an eight-camera system with seven active channels that provide maximum internal and external coverage. Montes added that the district is currently conducting a pilot program to download videos via Wi-Fi. He said that more Wi-Fi zones are needed around the city so video download capabilities can be expanded. He pointed out that technicians, safety and risk management personnel have the ability to go into the field and manually download videos to tablets whenever there are issues that need investigating. Eventually, Wi-Fi routers will be installed at each of the district’s remaining bus yards.

“The new hard drives have a six-week memory,” Montes said. “So when the buses come in we can download the information and hold it longer than six weeks. We can address any issues within 24 hours.”

It’s this dedication to staying abreast of technological advancements that may bring the Houston ISD through one of the most tragic events in its history. Last September, two Houston ISD students were killed when the school bus they were riding in breached an overpass railing and fell 21 feet to the road below, landing on its side. Two other students and the bus driver suffered serious injuries.

Houston ISD officials are not discussing the incident, which is still in litigation. However, a subsequent report compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board, determined that the bus, which was traveling at 55 mph, was struck on the left side by a car that was traveling about 69 mph. According to the report, the force of the collision caused the bus driver to lose control. This was determined after investigators reviewed the video from an externally mounted bus camera on the left side of the bus. The camera captured an image of the car leaving its lane just before impacting the bus. 

According to NTSB, the speeds of the school bus and the car were determined after analyzing the video from the school bus camera. 

Location, Location, Location

Industry experts said camera location is just as important as picture quality. Cameras should be configured to cover the most real estate possible, internally and externally. School districts should assess their current and future needs when selecting a camera system. In many cases, a hybrid system comprising analog and HD cameras is recommended to save money and still be effective.

Lori Jetha, director of marketing for Seon, suggested that camera selection depends on what you want to see. She said there are two reasons to have an IP camera. “The first is outside the bus to capture a license plate,” she added. “We recommend at least one HD camera outside the bus. The second is if you want to zoom in on an area. If you have an analog camera and try to zoom in the image gets pixilated, breaks up and the image gets grainier and grainier.”

She said there is not as much of a need for an IP camera inside the bus because the bus drivers should already know the students. She said the four-channel system is the most popular selection, but school districts should buy a system with more channels than they are currently using in case they want to add more cameras later. Cameras, Jetha said, are far less expensive than DVRs.

Clint Bryer, an account executive for Safety Vision, said placing an IP on the dash facing the road will serve multiple purposes in case of an accident. He said dash cameras have the ability to capture a license plate and can monitor road conditions, weather and traffic flow. “You can tell if a stop light was red or green, see children, potholes and rain-soaked roads,” Bryer said. “For greater distance views you have zoom capability.”

Bryer said another camera placement is to the left of the driver capturing the driver and the stairwell. “From there you can monitor students getting on and off the bus and driver-parent interaction,” he said. “A third good placement for an IP camera is the stop arm because you want to capture the license plate of violators.”

Quality vs. Quantity

Another decision school districts must make when shopping for HD or IP systems is memory capacity. REI’s Routh said one IP camera pulls as much data as eight analog cameras. “The higher the resolution the more information that needs to go to the DVR and is recorded on the hard drive,” Routh said. “With that in mind, if people want to adopt the use of multiple IP cameras or true HD cameras, it will eat into the amount of recording time. People need to perk up their ears to that. It would limit the time the cameras are recording to the hard drive. Schools would need to get bigger hard drives to have more memory.”

Routh said school districts should meet with their technology partners and discuss how to balance the amount of recording time they expect and need with the various camera views they would like.

“As long as school districts are clear on that, they can make smarter buying decisions,” Routh said. “The only reason you put cameras on a bus is so you can view the important events. If you need to review an incident that is no longer there because it’s been overwritten, then what’s the point of the system?”

247’s Scott suggested that many people do not fully understand what HD really means. He said the sharper picture people see on their HDTV is a product of denser pixilation in the frame. “There’s a trade-off there,” he said. “The video is a computer file that stores data, and there’s more data per frame in an HD frame picture than in a regular digital frame. So storage becomes an issue. If a district wants to store 30 days of video it will need twice the storage (space).”

Caveat Emptor: Let the Buyer Beware

Industry experts cautioned school districts to do their homework when looking to upgrade their camera systems. That means school districts should not buy the new technology just because it’s there, but assess their needs against what is available and ask the right questions.

To address the storage issue, Scott said some salesmen will recommend a district record at a lower frame rate than the standard 15 to 20 frames per second. But, he said, this results in a poorer quality video with a “jerky” motion.

“Make sure you understand what you’re buying, the capacity you need at the frame rate you need,” Scott said. “It’s another buyer beware situation. You can capture a crisper picture of a license plate with an HD camera, but there is more to it than just HD. You have to dig into the quality of the product you’re buying.”

Scott advised that if a salesman suggests moving to an HD system, ask why you might need it. “Then make sure you get a good answer that fits your needs,” he said. “There is no compromise, so do your homework.” 

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