Baldwin-Whitehall School District bus drivers to use two-way radios
By Brittany Goncar
Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Two-way radios might seem like a regression in technology to some people. But for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, it's the better option, school officials say.
The school board passed a 6-2 vote last week for a $63,432 purchase of push-to-talk radios for the school buses. School board member Larry Pantuso was absent.
Drivers now use cell phones provided by Sprint at an annual cost of about $30,480. The phones have dropped calls in certain areas, which led to worries about student safety.
“With the cell technology, it hasn't been successful, whether it is user misuse or the topography,” Superintendant Randal Lutz said. “We aren't getting the coverage that we need.”
The problems began when Sprint, which took over previous vendor Nextel, changed the technology, said Tim Winner, the district's director of technology.
“Pretty close to the beginning of this year, Sprint, as a business decision, shut off all the Nextel technology on the towers and migrated customers (other) technology,” Winner said. “We had problems from that point forward.”
Winner has tested both Verizon services and the two-way radio system with the assistance of the transportation department. He also reached out to other school districts for a comparison on services that they use. He said district drivers and transportation managers preferred two-day radios.
The radio system provided by Mobile Radio Service will prevent drivers from having issues in dead spots in many valleys and streets, such as Carson Street, Streets Run Road and Becks Run Road.
The school district will apply for a Federal Communications Commission license to acquire a private frequency wave for the radios. This cost was included in the proposed $63,000 capital estimate and comes with a 10-year contract. By law, the district can renew the license after 10 years at no cost because it is a government use.
After the initial cost and any maintenance fees, the district will save about $15,000 a year after about five years.
Currently, there are 106 cell phones in the district. This number would be decreased to 46, and service would be switched to Verizon. Some phones would be set aside for drivers who take longer trips outside of the radio coverage zone.
Several board members expressed worries about the absence of cell phones in an emergency situation because of the potential for a delayed response.
“It's not a requirement because there are situations when we would not mandate this, but we do require that the drivers call back to the garage,” Lutz said. “It's not our desire to have them call 911. The form of support could be mechanics going out, managers going out or calling 911 from the office. In this day and age, drivers have cell phones.”
Transportation managers and secretaries are required to work staggered shifts between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. so there is someone in the garage at all times. Mechanics and transportation managers also will have portable radios.
Officials agreed that old cell phones can remain on the buses for emergency use only. If a signal is not available, the drivers can use the radio system.
Drivers also can choose between one-to-one or broadcast methods, which would allow them to communicate with all 93 buses in the district.
“It's helpful in instances when there is an impending storm (and) you can do a call all,” Lutz said.
Brittany Goncar is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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