GPS system helps Issaquah School District bus fleet stay efficient, save money

August 26, 2013

By Neil Pierson

New: Aug. 26, 3:02 p.m.

When Jim Enfield wants to know the whereabouts of a bus, he doesn’t have to pick up a radio and wait for the driver to respond. The answer is at his fingertips.

Enfield, the shop foreman for the Issaquah School District’s transportation department, uses a sophisticated global positioning and radio-frequency identification system called Zonar to track buses. Not only can he pinpoint the location of a bus, he can see the route it has traveled, how fast it’s going, how long it’s been idling and whether it needs maintenance.

Issaquah began using Zonar about four years ago, according to Jo Porter, the district’s transportation director. Many other Washington districts use it too, including neighbors like Bellevue, Lake Washington and Puyallup.

One of the major benefits of Zonar, Porter said, is reducing fuel consumption. The district has saved between $12,000 and $16,000 annually since implementing the system on each of its 157 buses and 250 fleet vehicles.

Supervisors can see everything a driver is doing, and that has changed behaviors. Rather than idling for 20 to 30 minutes on a cold morning, drivers are turning off their engines.

“It brings us accountability, and the drivers know that,” Porter said. “There’s no secrets. They’re right out there. We will see your speed. We will know what your fuel consumption is. We will know whether you’re on time or late.”

Enfield indicated the district also saves time and money on service calls for its bus fleet. The Zonar device, about the size of a modem, plugs into a diagnostic port and connects directly with the vehicle’s engine. It reads data from the transmission, battery, brakes and other systems, and determines whether a problem needs immediate attention.

“It’ll ship me an email on why that check-engine light came on,” Enfield said.

Because Zonar compiles data over the Internet and sends email alerts, it can prove handy if it needs to be accessed at odd hours. For example, if Enfield is home on a Saturday and receives a call that a bus broke down on a field trip to Everett, he can diagnose the problem and make a proper response much more quickly.

Andrew Johnson, Zonar’s director of marketing, said hundreds of school districts in virtually every state are using the system. Its real-time diagnostic capabilities have proved valuable for maintenance crews.

“Typically, they’ll know if there’s a problem with the vehicle before the driver knows,” Johnson said.

Zonar began using radio-frequency identification systems in 2001 with a system that automates pre-trip and post-trip inspections. Business grew with the AT&T-powered wireless system that eventually came to Issaquah, and they’re also developing a student-tracking system called ZPass.

Porter said Issaquah has provided feedback to Zonar and is on the verge of picking up ZPass for a trial run. Students would carry a card with them and an RFID scanner would track when they enter and exit the bus. It’s not only a safety measure, but also a way to reduce the number of phone calls from parents inquiring about the location of their child’s bus.

“We’ve actually put a lot of time and effort into exploring it,” Porter said. “We think now that the technology is ready, we’re just kind of lined up waiting to be a pilot program. It’ll come.”

Anita Baker, who has worked as dispatcher for the Issaquah district for 11 years, said one of the earliest uses of Zonar was an urgent one. A driver reported an engine fire and was able to evacuate the bus safely.

“We were able to pick them up on Zonar and find out where they were at to send the fire department,” she said. “That was awesome.”

The technology has proved valuable during snowy conditions when travel slows down, and when drivers are at the edges of the district’s 110-square-mile territory.

“We have such mountainous territory here anyway, a lot of times we can’t pick up on the radio, so we’re able to find out where our drivers are, and that they’re safe and they’re running,” Baker said.

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