“In a district this size,we have more than a thousand buses stopping at 24,000 stops anddelivering 140,000 students to 200-plus locations. That’s why GPS[technology] is important to me. I can monitor a thousand buses over96,000 miles each day.” –Nicholas Gledich, Chief Operating Officer, Orange County Public Schools

If you’ve ever waited for the bus with your child in a torrentialdownpour, or in bitter cold weather, then you’ll appreciate aninnovation soon to be offered to parents of Orange County, Fla.,students: In the coming months, they’ll be able to subscribe to anoptional service that will alert them automatically by cell phone orpager when the bus is a certain distance from their child’s bus stop.Hence, no more waiting any longer than they need to.

Thisadd-on service will be available to parents down the road, but it’smade possible by a technological advancement that already exists on thecounty’s more than 1,000 school buses: Orange County Public Schools(OCPS) is one of the few large school systems in the country to haveGlobal Positioning System (GPS) devices installed on each and everybus.

“We’re one of the only large school districts that havefully implemented an Automatic Vehicle Location system,” Arby Creach,director of transportation systems for OCPS, says proudly. “I hadsomeone from another district say to me recently: ‘Oh my gosh, itworks–do you know how many presentations I’ve been to where they say,we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that–and you’re actually doingit!'”

The devices can pinpoint the exact location of each buson a map every 10 seconds. This information is not only invaluable incase of an emergency; it also has enabled OCPS to save about 10 percenton fuel costs, Creach says. That’s no small amount, given that thedistrict spent nearly $3 million on fuel last year alone.

It’sresults like these that prompted School Bus Fleet magazine to recognizeOCPS as one of the top 10 school bus fleets in the country recently.

‘Instant accountability’

OCPS purchased its GPS units and software from Boston-based companyEveryday Wireless. The units themselves cost about $800 apiece, andthey’ve been “terrifically reliable,” says Creach, an ex-militaryofficial who has drawn from his knowledge of high-tech weapons systemsto help guide the district’s transportation services. “Once thehardware was installed, it cost us nothing to operate.”

Thehardware consists of a small box installed on the bus and a shortantenna attached to the outside, typically on the hood. It receives GPSinformation from a satellite and retransmits this information to fivecounty locations via UHF radio. The data then are sent over theinternet to a district server and are overlaid onto the district’sexisting bus-routing software–for OCPS, Trapeze Software’s MapNetprogram.

The system “has brought instant accountability to our district,” Creach says.

For starters, there is the solution’s safety factor. If a vehiclebreaks down, or there is a bus-related emergency–a missing child, aserious injury, or even a hijacking–district officials instantly canlocate the bus in question.

“If a parent calls up and says,’Where’s little Suzie,’ I can probably tell you in seconds, instead of[having to say], ‘I’ll call you back in a few hours,'” Creach explains.

The system also reduces the likelihood of speeding, district officialsclaim, because it’s easy enough to monitor how fast drivers are going.In addition, drivers can send a silent emergency alert by pressing a”panic button” on the system, without having to get on the radio.

Greater efficiency

Along with improving safety, the GPS devices have helped district officials make their bus routes more efficient.

Because the system maintains a complete history of every bus trip, “youcan verify the routes,” Creach says. To plan their bus routes, heexplains, district officials use maps from county appraisers andcartographers, which are imported into the Trapeze routing software.But sometimes these maps are outdated or incomplete.

“Thisyear, we audited and [redrew] many routes, using the GPS information,”Creach says. “Here’s what it will tell you: That road didn’t go through[as expected], or, there’s a road here that the map didn’t show.” Headds: “The GPS technology brings out details that aren’t correct onthese maps.”

Shaving just a few miles or minutes off of busroutes here and there can have a huge cumulative impact, Creach says,noting that it costs between $45 and $50 to operate each bus per hour.By tweaking the routes, he says, “we’re able to put more money backinto the classroom.”

Nicholas Gledich, chief operating officer for the district, explains why he appreciates having the AVL system in place.

“In a district this size,” he says, “we have more than a thousand busesstopping at 24,000 stops and delivering 140,000 students to 200-pluslocations. That’s why GPS [technology] is important to me. I canmonitor a thousand buses over 96,000 miles each day.”

Future plans

Looking toward the future, OCPS officials say they’re exploring thepossibility of adding student ID cards to help track where, and when,kids get on and off the bus. Such a system would help ensure thatstudents are riding the correct bus and would add another layer ofsecurity, Creach says.

The cards would have an embeddedradio-frequency identification (RFID) chip, which would be read by ascanner on each bus as students enter or exit the vehicle. The cardslikely would be activated biometrically, meaning the correct studentwould have to be holding the card for it to work, so a student couldn’tsteal his friend’s card and use it.

Creach is working with thedistrict’s food service, library, and information technologydepartments, along with building principals, to design a system thatcould be used for many different purposes: checking out library books,paying for lunches, and so on. These multifunctional cards also wouldcontain a bar code and magnetic stripe, he says, so they would workwith each school’s existing technology systems.

“For us, itwould be one more feather in our cap for security–and that certainlymakes everybody feel better,” Creach concludes.