GPS system helps track school buses, boost efficiency

Sep. 01, 2013 @ 06:07 PM

Durham Public Schools is among several districts across the state that have implemented a new GPS tracking system on school buses that officials say will improve operating efficiency and help them, and parents, keep up with the daily trip to and from school.

 “This is probably the most revolutionary thing we’ve had in school buses in a long time,” said Scott Denton, DPS executive director of auxiliary services. “It’s the refinement of the tool itself that makes it almost a necessity to any school district.”

The new GPS system will allow Denton and his staff to track the district’s 260 yellow school buses as they transport approximately 18,00 students about 4 million miles over the course of the school year.

A product of Synovia Solutions, the GPS system tracks the bus along its daily route, including noting each time the bus stops and the stop-sign arm is extended, Denton said.

The system will allow DPS officials to track the time that yellow school buses arrive and leave locations, where they have been and how long the engine is left running or idling.

Denton said that the system was installed during spring break earlier this year and is comprised of a small box on the bus. A small bubble is visible on the top of the bus where the system antenna is.

“We want to make sure that service is set up in a way that will allow optimum functionality,” Denton said. “I’ve been in transportation for 15 years and known about GPS for several years. We experimented with a few systems before. The data wasn’t accurate and there were glitches in the systems. We just chose to hold off for a while.

“We’re already using Synovia’s products and we were much more impressed with their system so we took it to the board.”

The Board of Education approved a five-year contract that calls for leasing the units at $10,000 a month.

 “We’ll at least break even,” Denton said of the cost to the district. “Between the route savings, the idling and payroll, there will be enough savings for the system to pay for itself.

“Our job is to get the students to school on time. That to me is the most important benefit of this system. If they’re not there on time, they’re not learning. If they’re not there, they’re not learning.”

Denton explained that it’s hard to put an exact amount on savings as programs in the system continue to expand and require the use of buses along with changes in transportation patterns. Being able to do more with the same amount of money is an indication that money is being used more efficiently, he said.

The system includes a component to allow students to swip an ID card as the get on or off the bus, providing parents with their child’s exact location. But DPS won’t implement that function before seeking community input and identifying funding for it.

Sitting in the district’s transportation office on Hamlin Road, Denton said last week this is the quietest he can recall it being during the first week of school. One call wasn’t ended with the ringing of another.

“The staff worked hard to prepare for the start of school,” he said. “We worked to cross train people who can help during crunch time. It doesn’t mean that all of our problems have been solved with this GPS system but the GPS system has played a part because we can see what’s working and what’s not.”

Normally the first week of school is marked by phones ringing off the hook in the transportation office and with staff moving back and forth to see which buses have left, which ones have returned and with some even having to follow buses in cars while trying to read a map of planned stops.

“We will know in fact if that bus was there or not,” he said. “The resources we have to spend on tracking buses are reduced and that’s going to make us more efficient. There have been so many times when staff has had to get in a car and follow a bus to see where it’s stopping and how long it takes.

“But these things are now a desk job,” continued Denton. “All of that’s computerized now.”

With about $2.1 million spent annually on 700,000 gallons of fuel, the system’s ability to monitor idling benefits the district’s pocket.

There are instances when a bus has to be left running, to keep the bus warm in the winter or cool in the summer, but in some instances, Denton said, it is just out of habit.

Managing the idling of school buses over 325 bus drivers, including substitute and part-time drivers, was hard until the GPS system began tracking the time that bus engines are left running and where.

“Our idling dropped on our buses to next to nothing,” he said.