The disappearance in late January of a Pennsylvania school bus on what should have been a minutes-long trip has school districts around the country looking to the heavens for help. They’re consulting satellite tracking companies about how to keep better tabs on students.

“We’ve been swamped with calls,” said Daniel Lee, vice president of FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions, whose systems monitor various kinds of vehicles including school buses in Cleveland and Tulsa, Okla., and charter buses operated by Coach USA.

Todd Lewis of the company’s Philadelphia office said Pennsylvania districts have made inquiries “piqued by last [January’s] current events.”

The bus in Berks County, which is northwest of Philadelphia, went missing after picking up 13 students, ages 7 through 15, for a short trip from a high school to their Christian school nearby.

Frantic parents gathered at a municipal building and a police helicopter and cruisers made futile searches in rainy, foggy weather, until driver Otto Nuss parked the bus and surrendered to an off-duty police officer six hours later in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Nuss, who authorities said had a loaded rifle aboard the bus, faces kidnapping charges.

“You couldn’t find the bus in five hours. I could find it in five seconds,” Lee said. In fact, the tracking system could sound an alarm as soon as a bus left its route, he said.

Since the Berks County scare, two state senators have said they are drafting measures to examine the possibility of installing transponder devices similar to the LoJack stolen vehicle tracking system that would help locate missing buses.

All kinds of fleet operators, from trucking companies to city sanitation departments, keep a satellite eye on employees. FleetBoss, headquartered in Orlando, Fla., makes systems that track municipal garbage trucks and snow plows, service vehicles such as plumbing, heating, and air conditioning vans, landscapers’ trucks, and all of Orkin’s pest control vans, Lewis said.

Fleets save money because drivers speed less and don’t make unauthorized side trips, and drivers become safer, he said.

“You can know you have a driver who’s doing Mach 1 down a side street before an accident happens,” Lewis said. “You tell him I don’t want to see this. It literally changes the behavior of the drivers.”

Many companies market the systems. For example, the MARCUS vehicle tracking system developed by Discrete Wireless of Atlanta tracks school buses in systems near Atlanta and New Orleans, as well as fleets of from 10 to 100 vehicles in the trucking, courier, limousine, and various field-service businesses.

Elsewhere in Berks County, the Wilson School District is installing a tracking system with an additional wrinkle: boxes in pupil’s homes that sound a tone when the bus gets close.

The “Here comes the bus” system is being donated to the district in a pilot program by the developer, Joe Winkler, owner of Everyday Wireless in West Lawn, said Brian P. Loncar, supervisor of transportation for the district.

Despite being limited to a 10-mile radius, it would have helped in last month’s situation, Loncar said.

“If someone called here and said the bus has not arrived, and we could not raise the driver on the radio, I could get on the internet and get the last coordinate. I would know … where he went out of range,” Loncar said.

The West Paterson school district in Passaic County, N.J., implemented a system in September designed to do more than monitor buses, giving students plastic ID tags that register on computer scanners so that parents can use a password on a web site to see where a child gets on and off each bus.

Terry Van Lear, operator of a school bus company in Reading and president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, said bus surveillance can cost from $350 per vehicle for a basic LoJack system that lets police locate a stolen or hijacked bus, to $2,500 per vehicle for the most elaborate tracking capabilities.

Van Lear said installing systems statewide could get expensive: “If you’re talking about every school bus and van in the state of Pennsylvania, that’s 40,000 vehicles.”

Links:

FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions
http://www.fleetboss.com/home.cfm

Discrete Wireless Inc.
http://www.discretewireless.com

Everyday Wireless Inc.
http://www.herecomesthebus.com/work.html