Officials say new GPS system is important safety tool for Kokomo School Corp.
By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
At 2:52 p.m. Monday, Larry Johnson sat in his office and watched Kokomo School Corp. bus 211 move across the map on his computer screen.
The school bus was headed south on Berkley Road going 17 mph.
Johnson, the district’s transportation director, tracked the vehicle using a new GPS system his department installed this summer.
He’s only had the opportunity to use it a few times since school started Thursday, but he said it’s already been a game changer for him.
As transportation director, Johnson manages a fleet of 69 buses. That’s no small feat under normal circumstances.
But since the district opened a series of specialty schools and started allowing students to choose which school they attend, it has become even trickier, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for Kokomo Schools.
Many students are no longer attending their neighborhood schools. So instead of busing kids around their neighborhood, the district is busing them all over the city.
“With choice, that makes the whole game a little tougher,” he said. “The routes have become more complicated.”
Before now, it was tough for the district to see inefficiencies in its routes or answer parents’ questions about where their kids were or where the buses were at.
“It was almost impossible to get a clear picture of everything,” Johnson said.
To get information, they had to either follow the buses or rely on the drivers.
Even reaching the drivers to get some of those answers was a challenge.
Parents would call in and ask a question, Johnson said. It might be a question about where their children were or whether the bus stopped at their house that day. He would have to put the phone down, pick up his radio and ask for the driver who could answer that question.
Sixty-nine drivers were using the same radio station to communicate with each other, though, so sometimes it would take five minutes for Johnson to hear back.
For parents wanting answers, that’s a long wait, Barnes said.
“They’re so used to immediate information,” he said. “With this system, we can meet that need.”
Johnson no longer has to bother drivers for those answers — which alleviates a safety concern, Barnes said.
He doesn’t want them having to answer a bunch of questions while they’re trying to pay attention to the road and supervise a bus full of children.
“The drivers can focus on their job now,” he said.
Johnson can answer parents’ questions by himself in a matter of minutes.
And he has more detailed information, too. He can see exactly what time a driver stopped at a house, down to the second. He can also see how long the driver waited at the stop and whether that driver pulled the stop arm out.
Johnson can see how long a bus sits idle, how fast it’s traveling down the road and whether it’s early, on time or running late.
“If a driver is being unsafe, this alerts us,” Barnes said. “We can ask them, ‘What are you doing going so fast in the city?’”
Johnson said that’s what convinced officials in the district they needed to buy this system. The GPS technology cost $60,000 initially and will cost $25,000 a year to maintain.
But it’s a huge safety tool, he said.
“It’s answered so many questions for us… all of those small questions that really we should be able to answer,” he said. “It makes us more accountable.”
It will make the drivers more accountable, too. Johnson can now see when a driver parks a vehicle, when the vehicle is idle and when the driver goes off route, so he knows exactly how much time they spend on the clock transporting children.
Johnson said GPS systems are becoming a hot item for school transportation departments.
He said he’s glad Kokomo got on board this year.
“We were missing a major tool,” he said. “It offers you so much information that was a guesstimate before.”
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