Camera Advances Improve School Bus Safety, Inside and Out

Video surveillance equipment has become commonplace for school districts and contractors in their fight to catch thieves, vandals and misbehaving students on school buses. Camera systems can monitor and record operational data, collect footage from different angles inside and outside the bus, and generally give bus drivers an extra eye, helping them concentrate on the road.

As an increasingly useful option, video surveillance systems have seen many technological advances. Chief among these upgrades is the switch to digital recording and the addition of optional features to serve customers in a number of different applications. As a result, this niche market is expected to grow and become profitable for security dealers.

Digital Slowly Entering School Transportation
Until very recently, most video surveillance systems for the school transportation market were based on analog technology, using some form of traditional, tape-based VCR recording system. Today, the majority of fleet operators are still using analog cameras, but times and technology are changing rapidly as digital technology begins to permeate every facet of transportation safety and security.

The security industry has seen an influx of digital recording devices for quite some time. However, the trend has only begun influencing school transportation in the past year. The slowness of this transition is a result of multiple factors, including significantly higher prices for digital systems and a weak demand for new capabilities.

“The transition to digital is a price issue, rather than a technology issue,” says Dave Warkentin of Silent Witness in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. “So far, the school bus market hasn’t been able to accept a [digital] product at the price that has been available.”

This seems likely to change in the near future though, as most of the major manufacturers of cameras for school buses are either debuting digital equipment or in the process of developing it. “We have digital products on the market today, but for school bus-specific applications, we are still looking to develop a good digital product at the right price,” says Warkentin.

Operators Still Learning the Perks of Digital
School bus fleet operators strive to improve safety and security while simultaneously controlling costs. For this reason, security dealers should advise operators interested in acquiring video surveillance systems about the advantages digital technology can provide over traditional analog systems.

In larger school districts, there is usually a business or purchasing manager, or even an entire department, handling the purchasing of video surveillance equipment for its school buses. In smaller school districts, the decision may often be made by the district superintendent.

However, it is almost always the responsibility of the transportation manager or director to shop the products and make a request or recommendation to the district.

The typical purchasing process consists of a transportation director finding a product he or she likes and then – because video surveillance systems are usually bought for many buses at a time – filling out an application, which he or she sends to the purchasing or business manager. The business manager then places the order if it fits with the school district’s budget.

Because digital systems are significantly more expensive than their analog counterparts, operators are taking some careful consideration to decide whether the systems’ benefits outweigh their costs.

The potential for integration with computers is one of the most obvious advantages of digital technology, allowing operators to pull footage frame by frame via a computer or laptop. This function simplifies the transfer of important video materials between school officials. “[Operators] can freeze images and send frames to administrators and other people by E-mail,” says Judie Souknary of Houston-based Safety Vision.

The fact that operators don’t have to exert energy managing and maintaining videotapes is an attractive part of digital technology for operators.

Customized Options Make Systems More Versatile
Video surveillance has further improved in school transportation with the various options available to meet changing customer needs. Using on-screen menus and automatic programming functions, both analog and digital systems allow users to customize systems to their individual preferences. “I would say that all the additional things video cameras offer make them worth the investment,” says Cheryl Dalton, transportation coordinator for Ballston Spa (N.Y.) Central School District, which has 72 school buses in its fleet and a camera box installed on every one.

Dalton could be referring to any number of benefits. For example, the presence of text generators on video recorders allows the system to track vehicle speed, time, date and other information. The generator then displays this data on the video screen so that users have access to what is going on during the time the video was recorded. “These systems sense switch closures, vehicle speed or the application of voltage to an indicator and then display it,” says Jim Leacock, engineer for Radio Engineering Industries (REI) in Omaha, Neb.

“They can even learn the active condition of the monitored vehicle points such as the brake lights and stop arm, so that the user does not have to program these things on his or her own.”

Some systems record loading/unloading zones to watch for illegally passing motorists. “They will get close enough to record the faces of drivers as well as license plate information,” says Paul Schuster of Mirror Lite Co. in Rockwood, Mich.

Security dealers can also pitch some of the additional features of video surveillance equipment, such as color or monochrome viewing capability; different sized cameras and lenses; unlimited mounting options; ability to record after bus ignition is turned off; automatic activation for security purposes; long-life backup battery power; and wireless remote control.

Video surveillance systems for school buses can also be used for monitoring operator activity, outside vehicle accidents, and on-board rider incident recording. Recorded evidential data from these activities can often save a municipality or school district considerable litigation expenses. The deterrent factor of these systems has already been proven on many school buses.

Audio Quality Is an Important Concern in Current Systems
Many obstacles remain along the road to improving video surveillance technology for the school bus industry. Digital products, for instance, will present some problems simply based on their newness to school bus applications.

Says Peter Wilenius, general manager of video solutions for March Networks of Ottawa, “If the approach is to simply replace standalone VCRs with standalone digital video recording units, organizations are at risk for encountering the same challenges that they initially faced with VCRs â?? lack of reliability and time wasted on maintenance.”

Another hurdle is the fact that watching video footage can be time consuming. Perhaps the most glaring weakness in school bus video surveillance according to operators, however, is the lack of quality audio provided by existing systems.

Charles Bailey, transportation director for Peach County School District in Fort Valley, Ga., says that it is important in his district to monitor what is going on in the bus, while at the same time hearing what the drivers do and say. “The problem,” he says, “is that the ability to pick up good quality sound varies greatly from unit to unit based on the age of the camera and other factors.”

Warkentin agrees and adds that the location of the equipment is also important. “The quality of the audio is dependent upon the location of<

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