Amanda Dart’s first-grade son mistakenly boarded the wrong school bus one afternoon two school years ago. It was an easy mistake for a young child to make, but it was nonetheless frightening for his mother.
“That’s a panic moment for a parent,” Dart said.
Although her son was located and returned home, it took nearly an hour for him to get there.
If the school bus had been equipped with a Global Positioning System, or GPS, the child’s location and time of arrival could have been determined more quickly.
“There’s some reassurance that parents would get from a technology like (GPS),” Dart said.
Beginning this coming school year, parents will get that peace of mind. GPS devices are being installed on all 170 school buses in Columbia and will be ready before school picks up in August. Columbia Public Schools’ contracted bus service, First Student, of Cincinnati, will have GPS on 10,000 of its 22,000 buses in North America.
Gary Catapano, First Student’s vice president of safety, said the devices would make it possible to map and track vehicles, providing the speed and direction of a school bus.
“It gives us the ability to query the vehicle and report where the vehicle is without operator involvement,” Catapano said. “We’ll be able to say where the bus is without having to distract the driver.”
The devices will also help substitute bus drivers unfamiliar with a route they are asked to drive.
“If a substitute driver gets lost, we can simply pull them up on the system, find out where they are, pass along some directions, and you’ve got an instantaneous course correction — which we hope will greatly reduce the possibility of delayed routes,” said Jennifer Robinson, public relations director for First Student.
It is possible that GPS would also help cut back on fuel costs, said Blake Tekotte, transportation coordinator for the school district. The devices would improve transportation routes and could potentially lower fuel costs, Tekotte told the Columbia School Board in June in response to a question from then-board member Don Ludwig.
In addition to installing GPS devices, First Student will put alarm intrusion systems on all of its buses. The alarm is part of a combined system called Child Check-Mate and Child Theft-Mate. Check-Mate will remind drivers to check for sleeping children and abandoned items at the end of routes.
Once that check is completed, the technology transitions into the alarm intrusion system. Using Doppler and infrared technologies, the device works to detect a person who enters the bus. The bus’ lights immediately turn on, and after 30 seconds a low-level alarm sounds. After a minute, the bus’ horn begins honking and a message is sent through GPS to the central alarm system. A long-term plan includes a voice message that will announce, “Intruder, you’ve been detected.”
The entire project will cost several million dollars, Robinson said, declining to be specific, and the corporate office is “picking up the tab.”
Catapano said costs to First Student customers, including Columbia Public Schools, will not rise with the installation of the new technologies, all of which will be ready to go in August.
“It’s not anything that we’ll be charging anyone for,” Catapano said. “It’s just part of our commitment for security and safety.”
A portion of this report first aired Thursday during “News At 10” on KMIZ/Channel 17 ABC, Columbia.