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How Districts Make the Best Choices When Purchasing Video Systems

It’s been said that the only constant is change, and that’s certainly true with school bus-based video cameras. As these systems become more commonplace, so does the need to keep pace with advancing technology.

“Video systems, just like all current technology, are constantly evolving and improving,” said Arby Creach, director of transportation services for the School District of Osceola County in Kissimmee, Florida, which transports 72,000 students a day with a fleet of 400 buses. “Video camera systems acquired only a few years ago become obsolete in a few short years. As our buses age out, so do the video systems that were originally installed.”

Whether the task is replacing old equipment or installing cameras for the first time, a fundamental question arises. How can the best choice be made?

At northern California’s Fremont Unified School District, with 35,000 students and a fleet of 84 buses, past experience has been the guiding force in camera selection.

“After many years of utilizing different video systems in our school buses, we’ve been able to figure out what worked well and what did not work well,” said Director of Transportation Charlie Ott.

The goal became implementing a reliable system that without fail produced high-quality video, when needed. This included the capacity to show the areas between seats, below seat level, and to zoom in on a student without image pixelation. “We did our research by trial and error, comparing what we currently use, what we have used in the past, and through demonstrations of new modern technology,” Ott shared.

For transportation staff at Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which operates 60 buses, the need for new equipment became obvious, as aging hard drives failed and users coped with poor video quality. At one point, buses in the 11,700-student district were equipped with three different camera systems, one of which was from a company that no longer existed. Support for all three systems was lacking, according to David A. Hartzell Jr., the district’s transportation director.

“We compared resolutions from three or four current vendors with our current camera capabilities and realized our quality at the time was far below what vendors were offering,” he explained.

He and his staff selected a new system, but only after speaking with vendor reps at trade shows and inviting vendors for in-district product demonstrations. They also reached out to colleagues with experience in using video camera systems.

For the 280 buses operated by Spring Independent School District in Houston, taking advantage of newly improved tech has been the focus, noted Jack Mann, director of transportation for the 25,000-student district. He’s sang the praises about the solutions offered by the most recently available equipment.

“These high-definition cameras provide clarity, even when you are zooming in,” he added. “That’s a big improvement over older systems.”

Selection of equipment at Spring ISD has been a group effort. Mann consulted with others, including technical staff as well as administrators who view the footage. “It’s been a team effort,” he shared.

While similar steps have been taken at nearby Klein Independent School District, Director of Transportation Josh Rice distills the matter to a few simple ingredients. The district located northwest of Houston uses more than 330 buses to transport 53,000-plus students.

“Ultimately, our staff desired a camera system that was reliable, and [one] where the company offered good support,” he noted. “At the end of the day, anyone in transportation will tell you that they just want a camera system that when they go and retrieve video, it’s there.”

Key Selection Points

When choosing a camera system, evaluating image resolution and file storage is a major part of the process, Creach noted. Osceola district staff take great pains to make valid comparisons, when comparing the resolution of images.

“We will pull the hard drives from the various recorders that we may be testing and using from the supplied OEM video software, to do a visual comparison on the same monitors,” Creach added. “To keep apples and apples together, we use the same size buses with the exact same lens and resolution settings, viewing areas and lighting conditions.”

His staff also looks at video that is recorded in various lighting and weather conditions, to decide which system they feel is performing within expectations.

By comparison, Creach said he feels that storage need not be a primary consideration. “Except for the newer system running high-resolution settings, we do not need large storage capacities for the video, as most issues are current in their occurrence. We only need to typically look back a few days to find what we need.”

The district also lacks the bandwidth capacity and infrastructure to utilize automated, overnight video downloads from all buses. Once an event is identified, it’s transferred to hard media and filed with the student record.

“We simply pull videos individually upon request and as a part of our on-going routine process for ensuring quality driver performance,” he said.

Rice noted that when researching camera systems, he always prefers to view “real” bus video. “I want the vendor to connect a hard drive and show me the video from a bus,” he explained. “Often, vendors have a pre-recorded image that they show on the computer, but I want to see the real hardware and software in action. I can’t tell if video has been edited, if I don’t have an opportunity to see it in action.”

A factor not to be overlooked is the quality of recording. “Many times the picture does not tell the entire story,” Ott said. “Hearing what was said back and forth allows us to really be there.”

That can be especially useful in dealing with complaints or disputes. “We find that in the course of our investigations and use of video from buses, sound has become an invaluable factor in determining what may have actually happened on board or outside the bus,” Creach reported. “It can help to isolate a series of critical events, that may have been the catalyst for a serious event that has to be addressed.”

Reliability is especially important, according to Mann. “There’s nothing worse than having a parent ask for video, only to find the chip wasn’t working,” he added.

Investing in high-quality equipment can help in avoiding such problems. He recalled one incident, where a camera provided a court-ready document on the spot. “It’s nice to have video in hand that’s admissible in court,” he observed.

Installation quality is another consideration.

“The installation of many of these systems is a big deal,” Ott relayed. “So many installers out there do not know what they’re doing when it comes to cameras in school buses. This is an area where many deals go bad because the bid includes installation and the vendor cuts corners to save money.”

In evaluating vendors, Ott said it pays to probe on capabilities, such as knowing where best to place cameras as well as handling multiplex wiring and ensuring proper grounding.

While analysis of specific features makes sense, it’s the overall combination that counts. “We looked at specifications but found out that many times it’s not just one component but the entire system that matters. You can own the best camera with a low-quality DVR and not get the image you want,” he said.

Ott and his staff found the best approach to evaluating a video system is to perform an actual installation on a bus and then watch the footage. After taking that step, they decided on a large 1TB hard drive to store the amount of footage generated by nine cameras in a 40-foot bus.

Of course, cost is a vital part of any overall analysis. Finding the right balance between cost and value is imperative, Rice noted.

“Price and being fiscally responsible is always important,” he added. “However, service after the sale, reliability and long-term costs are key takeaways to any capital purchase that we make.”

Creach pointed out that most comparable video systems are priced about the same.

“Performance, reliability, reputation and service after the sale are our key issues for purchasing video recording systems,” he said.

And focusing too much on economy can be a mistake.

“A lot of it is price point, but we don’t go low bid,” Mann said. “I look at what will serve our needs.”

That includes both functionality and good service from suppliers. “Knowing they will respond is vital,” he added.

Careful Decision-Making

While proper equipment selection can be time-consuming, it will be worth the effort. The process, opinions and experiences of others can be especially helpful, Creach shared.

“Sometimes a problem, or a performance or support condition that was unforeseen, can easily be explained or corroborated with peers that may have similar experience,” he explained. “The word of mouth from other users and peers, good or bad, is an exponential multiplier in the video recorder business.”

Mann advised to not simply obtain information from suppliers but also spend time with vendors to build relationships. “You can discuss problems and learn what’s happening in the industry,” he suggested.

He said he also encourages networking with other directors and administrators. “Going and sitting on their buses is a good practice,” he said.

In-house input can be similarly useful.

“Feedback from the employees that will utilize the system daily is key,” Rice said. “They want to be able to use software that is easy to maneuver, and that helps them get their job done.”

Once decisions have been made and equipment is in hand, staying on top of camera performance is essential. “We review our video systems annually to determine the efficiency, reliability and quality of the recorders and video product that we’re receiving from the video units on a daily basis,” Creach said.

If staff finds that a recorded video is not functioning properly or the quality and resolution are simply not acceptable, they replace the unit.

“Due to the rapid changes in the video recording technology world, we always buy the latest technology when we buy new buses and we retire the older buses and their obsolete video systems,” he added.

All things considered, it’s hard to argue with a commitment to hands-on evaluation.

“If you view all the bids out there in our industry, they all look the same,” Ott observed. “We’re not camera experts, nor are we DVR and recording equipment experts.”

He noted that while anyone can write a document that says video systems meet a certain requirement, that doesn’t make the information factual.

“The old saying that the proof is in the pudding is so true when it comes to this equipment,” Ott concluded. “Take the time to actually compare your video side by side, and you will see which systems are better.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the April issue of School Transportation News. 

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