The bottom line of a webinar sponsored by bus video camera manufacturer REI was that student transporters must do their homework when considering new technology solutions for their school buses.
Taylor Moore, territory manager for the school bus division at REI, commented during the June 17 webinar that RFPs are a chance for districts to outline the specifics of what they want to avoid disappointment down the road.
Charlie Ott, the director of transportation at Fremont Unified School District near San Francisco, added that transportation directors are student transporters first and not necessarily experts about technology currently available. Thus, they should seek input from vendors.
“Often, an RFP tends to match the vendor’s product rather than the district’s needs,” cautioned Ott, who has more than 25 years of leadership and experience in the school bus industry.
He advised comparing several RFPs and then asking questions on the details and differences between systems. Consulting with other districts is also a good way to check on how different systems are working in the field.
Ott said that shopping around and testing is better than simply sticking with one brand because that’s the way it’s been done for a long time.
“Always be open-minded because technology does change,” he advised.
He added that it’s important to determine if the product is stocked and ready to be shipped immediately, or if there will be a backlog.
“Change isn’t bad,” Ott commented. He related that the changing shape of bus cameras, for instance, shouldn’t throw transportation staff off, but that they should still test the applications and be ready to adjust to changing markets.
Like shopping for a new laptop computer, both the longevity and stability of school bus technology should be considered – along with new options that come with enhanced features for increased student safety.
As technology changes, not everyone uses the same vocabulary. Ott related that in conversations with vendors, he has had to interpret differences in order to compare and contrast the nuances of technology options. Transportation supervisors must dedicate time to studying the nuances and realize that there are no easy answers.
He also suggested taking a phased approach with new technology, so that there is time for training and a learning curve with the new systems.
Ott said that it is important to make sure that the supplier a district is buying from has robust, knowledgeable customer service that is ideally reachable 24/7. It’s also the role of the supplier to be available to help the district and point out new features or applications that can help improve efficiency.
These are just as important to include in an RFP as technological specs, Moore added.
When looking at school bus camera suppliers, there are nuances to consider.
Ott recalled when there were dummy boxes placed on buses to trick students into thinking they were cameras. Now, onboard cameras are a big part of daily norms for school busing. Currently at Fremont USD, Ott said he runs three cameras on each side of the bus, along with one at the front and one at the back.
“Seeing more and focusing on what you need to capture is key to resolving common, everyday issues [on the school bus],” added REI Sales Manager Drew Batten.
Rather than seeking 1080p resolution video, Batten advised asking for a higher bit rate. He added that it’s important to pay attention to camera pixels and how clear the video is.
Ott urged webinar attendees to ask the manufacturer for information on how the technology was engineered and tested, as well as to ask for samples to test on their school buses.
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When considering video storage, there are pros and cons to different drives. Moore discussed an online calculator that allows adjustment of resolution, frame rate and video quality inputs that can help districts determine their individual operational requirements.
Districts should also consider technology that offers backward compatibility – or interoperability with other solutions – as well as examine how the new technology they’re looking at will integrate with what they are currently using, Ott reminded listeners.
Ott added that Frames Per Second (FPS) isn’t all there is to video quality. Moore noted that the human eye can only interpret about 18 FPS, which is why REI recommends recording at 15 FPS.
“Before you settle on a system, test it,” Batten advised.
Moore also underscored the importance of doing one’s homework.
Cameras look the same, but the internal differences are crucial to note, Ott said. He advised letting the vendor come in and prove they’re as good as they say they are. He relayed that he’s seen RFPs that asked for an extremely ambiguous “one year” of storage. Using an online calculator helps districts be realistic in what they ask for in an RFP.
“We should do the best for our students and ourselves [as transportation staff],” he added.