As the number of student activities around the state increases and the temperature decreases, parents and school staff get a little nervous, but this year should be a little easier for them.
The Havre Public Schools transportation system has just started using a new vehicle-tracking system with GPS devices in every school vehicle.
Transportation Director Jim Donovan showed this system, which can be checked on any computer or through a smartphone app, to the Board of Trustees at its meeting Tuesday night.
In that demonstration, Donovan showed how he could not only see exactly where all of the school vehicles are at any time, but track how they got there, how fast they got there, and how long they may have idled at any step along the way.
At the meeting, he checked in on a bus that was at Harlem High School and saw it leave to head back to Havre.
What is probably the biggest use for this system is for the long drives that student groups often make across the state and away from either family or school officials.
“In one week, we’re in Bozeman, Sidney and west of the mountains, ” Donovan said.
And too often for Donovan’s comfort, those trips take students through mountain passes, winter storms or wildfire areas. Now he can, on his phone, see exactly where the bus is, where possible danger may be, and how the bus can get through it.
Both he and the driver can exchange messages through the GPS on the bus and Donovan’s phone. Though he hopes the driver will not be sending out messages while driving, if the driver does send a message about a medical emergency, the alarm will be raised.
“If they send medical emergency I will call out the cavalry, ” Donovan said.
That message will instantly go out to the cellphones of five school officials, day or night, so they can respond as quickly as possible.
“If you're transporting students it's just like a classroom, ” Havre Public Schools’ Superintendent Carlson said. “There is an expectation that you will be in charge. It's hard sitting there and knowing that we have buses out there and they might not be safe. ”
While handy in emergencies, the system has more day-to-day applications, for the 445 miles Havre’s buses drive twice every day.
Donovan said, as an example, that it can be used to help train substitute drivers and keep everybody on track.
“A sub can come in and go through stops without people waiting, ” Donovan said. ”Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Then they’re five minutes ahead. I can see that, call them up and tell them they're going too fast. ”
Donovan also said that he hoped that being able to study driver performance over time would lead to some insights and trends that might be used to improve safety or save money, but the drivers are too good.
“The thing this has told me more than anything else is they are doing a pretty good job, ” Donovan said. “We wanted to do weekly reports, but we haven't had to tell them much. ”
The system costs the school district $40 per day, Donovan said, but that should be easy to make up for in a couple of ways.
First would be fuel costs, while watching to make sure drivers are neither going too fast nor idling for too long and soaking up all that increasingly expensive fuel.
Another way to save the district some money will hopefully come out of a meeting with the schools’ insurance company.
“I do know that other companies that use this sort of system, their insurance rates are a lot better, ” Donovan said.