In early March, transportation staff members at Lee County School District in Fort Myers, Florida had their hands full after the state inspected 120 buses and identified seven with multiple problems, and four of those buses scored “incomplete.” According to local news reports, the inspection results uncovered 28 broken seatbelts, a worn drag link (a part critical to steering the bus and maintaining control), a pinched wire fire hazard, and tire tread depths that were not recorded.
School Transportation News reached out to Lee County for comment but could not connect with officials there before press time. But local reports indicated that the district does not have a computerized preventive maintenance program and relies on handwritten records.
The situation could be a cautionary tale for operations nationwide—Without a disciplined preventive or predictive maintenance program, especially during labor and supply shortages, material and equipment deficiencies pile up quickly and pose undue risk to equipment and personnel.
An issue even before COVID-19 is aging bus fleets that aren’t replaced fast enough, demanding more corrective maintenance as parts and components are more prone to failure and approach their own end of life. Compounding matters, school bus mechanics are also in short supply. Factor in COVID and all the woes of the pandemic and the problem has worsened.
At least during the first several months of the pandemic, some buses sat idle, making them prone to maintenance problems such as corrosion and other operational snafus. School bus manufacturer Blue Bird noted in its earnings report that for the first quarter of 2022 sales of parts declined by 15 percent between 2020 and 2021, due to school closures. “Stay at home orders and school closures reduced bus repair and maintenance activities due to lower bus use,” the company stated.
John Finn, the senior vice president of maintenance for school bus contractor National Express, said he understands the existing climate and knows that a host of big and small problems—from procurement delays to supply chain snags, present challenges.
“Given many fleets have been operating fewer miles or have been idle during COVID, it makes sense to extend the life by an additional year or two if the contract permits,” said Finn. “We have had no budget constraints [in] purchasing equipment, but the Type A chassis has seen delays due to the chip shortage.”
Approaching Predictive Maintenance with Digitization
A culmination of circumstances has magnified the importance of rigorous predictive maintenance practices derived from a disciplined and carefully mapped out schedule. Instilling such discipline has been tough, given a long list of challenges districts face: old technology replacing new technology with little experience in the replaced technology, old technology not being replaced and causing maintenance problems, tight budgets, mechanic shortages, and a COVID pause that meant some maintenance was deferred.
As many things challenge bus maintenance, fleets seek ways to get a better grip on predictive, preventive, and corrective maintenance, by using cloud-based software platforms that connect with operational managers, shops, and sometimes the buses.
“Having a maintenance platform for scheduling preventive maintenance, reminders and history is valuable to the business operation,” said Lilia Montoya, director of transportation at Los Angeles Unified School District. “School districts must project and mobilize their teams to meet regulatory mandates, customer expectations and provide system support to stay ahead of any anticipated [and] unanticipated disruptions.”
Finn at National Express added that it is important to have a dedicated maintenance platform, such as a software as a service (SaaS) tool for scheduling, setting up reminders, and archiving maintenance history.
“It has become imperative to have the latest in full OEM diagnostic at your fingertips, as vehicle systems become more integrated and complex,” he explained. “As an example, Navistar with its OnCommand [Connection] program provides you real-time vehicle state of health reports. Predictive maintenance items have come a long way with the use of telematics across multiple vehicle platforms. However, they are not a replacement for normal schedule inspection intervals at this time. It is essential to have a good fleet maintenance system specifically a [maintenance information system]. Without it, you have no visibility to manage day-today processes, which includes [preventive maintenance inspection] PMI compliance, asset utilization, road failures, [and] inventory management.”
Investment in a good, connected maintenance SaaS tool may be instrumental to keeping the buses rolling and students transported safely.
“Now, more than ever, utilizing connected technologies to improve maintenance and service is critical to keep buses on the road,” said Sean Slyman, director of connected services for Navistar, the parent company of IC Bus. “Utilizing connected technologies can provide school bus fleets the right tools to reduce unplanned vehicle downtime. Connected technologies can help fleets manage challenges such as parts procurement or labor shortages through functionality like parts inventory management or guiding maintenance personnel through the vehicle diagnostic and repair process.”
Slyman added connected technologies provide real-time information about bus performance. As issues occur, they can be addressed promptly. “The collection and assessment of more data can better inform the maintenance teams as to how the individual vehicles are performing and can provide specific insights into which items need to be addressed, and when,” he said.
Slyman emphasized that advanced connected technology shop, demand that fleets embrace it to improve or enhance how they service these vehicles.
“Data-driven maintenance is the path forward to manage planned maintenance and proactively address the unexpected issues before they become catastrophic failures,” he noted. “We are developing predictive solutions that will build on our existing preventive maintenance capabilities and help us deliver industry-leading uptime.”
Connected technologies address scheduling and can signal technicians to order parts and needed supplies to complete the scheduled maintenance items. By tracking and scheduling maintenance, fleet managers can get a head start on logistical challenges they face in the wake of a pandemic and a supply chain shortage.
“As the push becomes even greater to move to a green fleet with higher initial cost outlays, budget constraints lengthen the retention of older buses creating an older fleet,” said Francine Furby, the director of the office of transportation services with the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
But she noted an impending problem affecting school bus maintenance is adequate part support. Her district is experiencing a delay in parts procurement and labor shortages due to the pandemic. This is causing a trickle effect on current staff to work overtime and source parts to ensure that the buses are being maintained within state requirements.
“There is always room to improve maintenance processes and programs, no matter the size of the fleet or experience level in the shop,” added Navistar’s Slyman.
That rate at which technology continues to advance means these enhancements will continue to improve maintenance operations for fleets, helping them to shift from a reactive to proactive maintenance approach if they utilize these technologies. Fleets that will succeed in utilizing these programs are those that take the time to learn about and embrace these technologies.
Like with the buses in Lee County, Florida, staying on top of maintenance and material deficiencies continue to challenge school districts everywhere. Some districts are introducing electric buses, which have many maintenance benefits along with other challenges such as introducing new infrastructure. While other districts have buses powered by alternative fuels such as propane, which also offers reduced maintenance but can pose its own unique problems. Employees were inspecting a propane school bus at a bus terminal in New Hampshire when a dangerous explosion occurred, seriously injuring two persons.
Maintenance will be more disciplined and better managed as new digital tools are introduced by manufacturers, software vendors, and others within this niche. As they do, maintenance continues to be a crucial watchword and one that will enter the conversation concerning new bus procurements, transportation budgets, and pupil transportation safety, especially now and in the future.
Read more about the bus terminal fire in Hew Hampshire at stnonline.com/go/bo.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2022 issue of School Transportation News.
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