‘Black boxes’ keep track on school bus whereabouts


Come tomorrow morning, the fleet of First Student buses will be busy transporting students to Warwick schools armed with valuable safety details and extensively trained drivers.

Susan Barbour, location manager at First Student in Warwick, said buses are equipped with a number of technological advances to assist with bus monitoring and security.

For starters, all 79 buses are now equipped with Zonar, an electronic and satellite-based tracking system. Barbour explained that the system works as a GPS and she has the ability to monitor the speed and location of all of the vehicles at all times.

The system allows First Student to keep track of a number of things regarding the bus, such as if the bus does not stop at a specific location or arrived at a different time than it is scheduled to.

“It’s like a black box in an airplane,” said Barbour. “It’s positioning.”

The Zonar program also features a vehicle inspection component that can track the fuel efficiency of a bus, whether it’s idling and any mechanical issues or necessary repairs. By monitoring these items electronically, Barbour has the ability to alert drivers to unnecessary idling and, as a result, reduce fuel costs, and eliminate paperwork for drivers to fill out.

The system will also alert Barbour to any emergency situation, such as an accident or breakdown, and allows her to coordinate a response quickly. By monitoring all of the buses while on their route, Barbour can also be alerted to traffic jams and notify the school that a bus is delayed.

Barbour said this is a service to parents who call and question their bus routes.

“I will know the route it traveled, if it opened the door at any time, what time it was at a stop,” said Barbour, explaining that if a parent calls to find out what time the bus gets to a stop because her child keeps missing it, the exact time of arrival can be provided.

Warwick buses are also equipped with two alert systems, Child Check-Mate and Theft-Mate.

Child Check-Mate is an electronic reminder system designed to help a driver ensure the safety of children and ensure that a child is never left unattended on a bus.

“It makes sure no child is left behind,” said Barbour.

The system is activated once the bus is started. Once the driver has completed his route, he must turn the key to accessory mode, get up and walk toward the back of the bus where the “Stop and Check” reset button is located. As the driver walks toward the back of the bus, they must check each seat to make sure no child remains on the bus because they are hiding or fell asleep.

Theft-Check, which works in conjunction with Child Check-Mate, is a security and safety system installed in all buses. The alarm system is activated within 60 seconds of the bus being turned off. It will sound an alarm if any motion is detected on the bus. A driver has 30 seconds to start the bus and turn off Theft-Mate before the alarm sounds.

First Student, a school bus company that operates in 38 states and nine Canadian provinces, also provided Warwick schools with new special education buses that feature all of the above mentioned safety features, are air-conditioned, and run on gasoline, not diesel fuel. The buses were received in June, and Barbour said they would be used beginning this school year.

Additionally, First Student employs 144 drivers and 49 aides who are highly trained.

According to Barbour, all drivers undergo a background check with drug and alcohol screening, must take a Department of Transportation physical exam, participate in 40 hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel training in addition to safety and training meetings, and submit to regular driving history checks and random drug and alcohol screenings.

Although a kick-off meeting for the year was hosted last week, Barbour said training is continuous.

“We’re always training new drivers,” she added.

Intensive training is required for aides and drivers on the special education bus to accommodate the children as needed, dealing with some students who are physically very fragile, passenger management and even car seats in some cases.

To help with transporting students with special needs, driver and aide packets are sent home with parents at the end of each school year to introduce them to their bus drivers. Within the packet is a voluntary questionnaire that parents can fill out to provide drivers and aides with more information, such as preferred nicknames or specific needs.

“Sometimes it makes the transportation a little more comfortable,” said Barbour.

In addition, all drivers and aides receive training in bullying prevention.

“They are trained in what to look for, signs to look for, etcetera,” said Barbour.

According to training material from First Student, drivers are allowed to take action if they see bullying occurring and can report incidents to management and the appropriate members of the school district. The material also encourages parents to speak with drivers if they suspect bullying is occurring.

“[The drivers] do write bus conduct reports to school principals,” said Barbour. “We expect classroom behavior on the bus.”

Parents should rest easy knowing their children are being looked after and are safe while riding the bus to and from school.


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