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April 01, 2005  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

SBF's Top 10 Maintenance Programs for 2005

School bus maintenance workers are often the unsung heroes of transportation departments. In our fourth annual edition of the Top 10, we recognize the hard work and dedication put forth by America's school bus maintenance staffs.

by SBF staff editors Steve Hirano, Thomas McMahon, Albert Neal, Teresa Basich and Lane Robert


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Teamwork minimizes budget woes

Autauga County Schools
Prattville, Ala.

Working together to solve everyday maintenance issues comes naturally in the school bus shop at Autauga County Schools in Prattville, Ala.

“We don’t have any bickering,” Joey Hamm, shop supervisor, says. “People are willing to try the other person’s suggestion to see if it works better.”

Purvis Johnson, the transportation supervisor for Autauga County, also acknowledges the teamwork of Hamm and his five mechanics. “Our shop personnel have the unique ability to not only work together but to share experiences and knowledge with each other.”

The teamwork exhibited by the employees at Autauga’s shop is probably why its retention rate is so strong, despite a tight budget. It recently lost one employee, but he had worked for the shop for 22 years. Hamm has worked for the school district for more than 16 years.

The teamwork dynamic makes employees happy to come to work. Hamm has had jobs in other industries that paid more, but he prefers his current situation. “Everyone here works so well together; there is no way I would trade it for more pay,” he says.

Every bus under the care of the team undergoes a thorough inspection every 20 days. Although many shops may do this kind of inspection, it is the way Autauga does it that makes them different.

Each the 101 buses and 32 other vehicles under the shop’s care is looked over by everyone. This process is used because “no one person can catch every problem on a bus,” Hamm says. “So when you’ve got five sets of eyes on that bus, it’s almost guaranteed the problem will be caught.”

Tight budgets mean cost cutting is important. Efforts are made to keep costs to a minimum by shopping for the best deals. Autauga County believes in itself and works together beyond expectations and under strict budget demands.

Johnson says it best: “This county ranks last in funding in Alabama, but that cannot and will not keep us from being the best we can be as far as school bus maintenance. It’s a matter of pride.”

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 101 buses, 133 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 6
Number of bus bays: 5
Annual mileage: 1,127,358
Students transported: 5,360
Schools served: 14

 


Safety enhancements bolster shop’s visibility

Buncombe County Schools
Asheville, N.C.

Buncombe County Schools’ transportation department has distinguished itself through its student safety and environmental protection practices.

The transportation program was the first in North Carolina to install strobe stop-arm lights on its entire fleet. These lights have now become standard equipment on all new school buses in the state.

“We’ve equipped each of our school buses with roof-mounted strobe lights as well,” Transportation Director Harold Laflin says. The strobes enhance bus visibility when it’s dark out or if the weather is poor.

During the summers of 2003 and ’04, Buncombe and the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency received EPA grants and equipped all school buses with diesel oxidation catalysts. “It was in our interest to reduce school bus emissions and provide cleaner air for all of Buncombe County,” Laflin says.

The district continually seeks ways to promote safety, reduce costs and maintain equipment. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has recognized Buncombe County Schools’ efforts to keep its buses in top shape. During the 2000-01 school year, Buncombe received the state agency’s top bus inspection rating.

But the shop still faces its share of challenges. Advances in diesel-engine technology keep the staff on its toes. Laflin sends his techs to specialized centers for training. The additional instruction adds value to the shop’s preventive maintenance program.

Buncombe has a two-tiered preventive maintenance routine that includes a 6,000-mile service and a 30-day inspection, both required by the state.

ASE certification is encouraged at the shop, and mechanics can attend the state pupil transportation association’s annual conference for additional training.

The staff also takes advantage of the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s courses on diesel technology. Several staff members, Laflin included, have graduated from the school’s automotive diesel program.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 287 buses, 425 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 29
Number of bus bays: 8, plus 1 body shop
Annual mileage: 3,000,000
Students transported: 15,600
Schools served: 50 {+PAGEBREAK+}

Knowledgeable staff makes the grade

First Student Inc.
Davenport, Iowa

“You have to have good people skills if you want to make it in this business,” says Steve Watt, transportation manager at First Student Inc. in Davenport, Iowa. Watt starts his day off with a smile and a positive attitude, which he says encourages the same from his staff. “It starts at the top,” he says.

It’s no coincidence that morale is high at First Student, where a shop staff of four takes care of 111 school buses. The crew, which consists of three technicians and a lot attendant, has its fingers on the pulse of the transportation department and is careful to not neglect a single area.

“They consistently have good inspections, an extremely clean facility and knowledgeable technicians,” says Max Christensen, Iowa’s director of pupil transportation.

The group is always on the lookout for the most effective and efficient ways to provide student transportation. “We try to figure out where you get the most miles for your money,” says Watt. “We weigh the pros and cons on everything from gas engines versus diesel to hydraulic brakes versus air brakes.”

Use of a timetable in the areas of oil, lube and filter changes has also contributed to cost savings. Advanced technologies in engine manufacturing have extended the oil-change intervals. First Student technicians have now lengthened the time between oil changes. The oil gets changed every 12,000 miles on International and Cummins engines and every 8,000 miles on Caterpillars.

“We’re able to save money, and the oil analysis usually comes back clean,” Watt says. The contractor’s preventive maintenance program is top notch as well.

“Our buses come in every 4,000 miles or every four months,” says Ross Meier, lead technician at First Student. The techs use a bumper-to-bumper check sheet.

Drivers help out by alerting the mechanics if buses behave strangely. Write-ups called driver vehicle condition reports are turned in daily, and Meier follows up on any red flags.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 111 buses, 113 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 4
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 939,000
Students transported: 6,000
Schools served: 39

 


Technology pulls district ahead

Havre Public Schools
Havre, Mont.

The maintenance staff at Havre Public Schools’ transportation department knows how to keep things moving with a strong preventive maintenance program and clear communication between drivers and mechanics.

“We design an individual maintenance program according to the manufacturer’s recommendations,” says Ginger Zanto, transportation director at Havre. Her mechanics input all manufacturer maintenance recommendations into a computer program that tracks and organizes the information and prints out work orders when services are needed.

Most of her mechanics have college degrees, and some have even spent time with bus manufacturers to get a better feel for how the vehicles work. “We actually sent one of our mechanics to the Blue Bird manufacturing factory to get a better idea of what’s going on,” Zanto says.

The mechanics also take time to listen and talk to the district’s bus drivers. Most of Havre’s bus drivers don’t have a complete grasp of vehicle terminology or the problems that can go wrong, but Zanto says her maintenance staff figures out what they’re saying and works with them to fix problems.

“I think it’s just the way they communicate,” Zanto says. “They feel very comfortable talking to each other.”

Although Havre doesn’t require ASE certification, most of the mechanics stay on top of new material and have received certification.

Zanto also tries to stay on top of maintenance overhead with various cost-cutting measures. Havre has computerized its routes to optimize efficiency. The district has also decided to follow an anti-idling initiative and to buy all of its fuel in bulk.

Zanto says that outside of Havre’s school buses, a key challenge lies in maintaining its over-the-road coaches. “Those particular buses are more difficult for the mechanical staff than our regular yellow buses,” she says. “That’s probably the biggest challenge we have, although we cope and we figure it out.”

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 22 school buses, 35 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 2
Annual mileage: 300,000
Students transported: 1,200
Schools served: 5
{+PAGEBREAK+}

Skills, experience keep buses rolling

Laidlaw Education Services
Grand Junction, Colo.

Versatility and experience are key strengths of the six-member maintenance staff at Laidlaw Education Services’ terminal in Grand Junction, Colo.

“I’ve got one guy who has done a lot of diesel engine work. Another comes from the tire industry. Another is skilled in body work,” says Larry White, maintenance supervisor. “And we’ve got a combined 70 years of experience in the school bus industry.”

This combination of skills and experience is critical because White’s five mechanics maintain 167 buses for two school districts — Mesa County School District #51 and Garfield County School District #16. That’s equivalent to more than 30 buses per mechanic.

That doesn’t leave a cushion if one of the mechanics is absent. “It tends to throw a wrench in the cogs,” White says.

The overall efficiency of the operation is tracked closely using Laidlaw’s proprietary fleet maintenance software. White monitors a wide range of variables, including preventive maintenance routines, average daily mileage of buses and warranty claims. “If we want to know what a bus is costing us on a per-mile basis, we can track that,” he says.

The shop staff spends about 70 percent of its time on preventive maintenance. The fleet is relatively young, with the buses averaging about 5 years of operation. White says the oldest buses are 1990s; the newest are 2005s. The fleet mainly comprises buses manufactured by IC Corp.

The terminal is located about 40 miles east of the Utah border. It’s surrounded by mountains on three sides and has an elevation of about 4,500 feet. “We run buses up the Colorado National Monument,” White says. About 55 of the buses are equipped with driveline retarders, which White says helps with mountain braking.

All of his mechanics have their CDLs and occasionally are called upon to substitute for drivers. Although this pulls them away from the shop, it does provide them with a view from the drivers’ perspective, White says.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 157 buses, 159 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 6
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 2,500,000
Students transported: 9,000
Districts served: 2

 


Maintenance as a mindset

Mid Columbia Bus Co. Inc.
Pendleton, Ore.

The school bus technicians with Mid Columbia Bus Co. may be spread out over 13 shops in three states (Oregon, Washington and Idaho), but their top-notch maintenance work is tied together by thorough training and a strong preventive maintenance schedule.

In addition to attending training held by bus and engine manufacturers, all of the company’s technicians get together at least once a year for a multi-day, in-house workshop. These sessions consist of training modules that the company has developed and often focus on what are referred to as “hotspots” — any pressing maintenance issues that need to be addressed. There’s also time set aside for the technicians to have fun and get to know each other better, whether it’s a golf scramble, a barbecue or some other activity.

Additionally, Mid Columbia Bus encourages its technicians to pursue ASE certification and compensates them for expenses in taking the test. “Many of them are either master certified or school bus certified in different areas,” says Steve Hendrickson, vice president of maintenance services.

Chief Operations Officer Bruce Flatt says the company’s well-defined preventive maintenance schedule is one of the keys to its success. Three levels of service are performed at intervals of 2,500 miles, each one including a 100-point-plus inspection. The “A” PM is a dry inspection, with no fluid changes; the “B” is an extension of that, with oil and fuel filter changes; the “C” includes pulling the wheels, checking the brakes and taking care of other in-depth maintenance.

Mid Columbia Bus drivers are trained to perform thorough pre- and post-trip inspections. “The drivers are a key frontline portion of our maintenance program,” says Flatt. “If they can see a problem developing before it results in anything more serious, then we’re able to address it in a timely manner.”

Adds Hendrickson: “Maintenance is not just something that the technicians perform — it’s really a mindset for the whole company.”

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 500 buses, numerous staff cars and service trucks
Total shop staff: 24
Number of bus bays: 1 to 5 per shop
Annual mileage: 5.32 million
Students transported: 20,900
Districts served: 33
{+PAGEBREAK+}

Finding problems before they occur

Moore Public Schools
Moore, Okla.

Dwight Chapin, shop foreman of the transportation department at Moore Public Schools, brings 28 years of experience to the garage each day. He started sweeping floors there at age 16, when the district operated 52 buses. Now it’s running 129 buses and more are on the way.

“We’re in one of the fastest-growing districts in Oklahoma,” Chapin says. A successful bond issue to provide funding for, among other things, a new high school and more buses to serve the campus means that Chapin’s job will be even more hectic over the next several years.

“Dwight’s biggest challenge is scheduling,” says Transportation Director Floyd Gates. Adding to that burden is a chronic driver shortage that requires his mechanics to substitute for drivers “too frequently.”

But this additional pressure doesn’t compromise the quality of the maintenance work. “We use a double-check system to make sure that we’re staying on top of things,” Gates says.

For example, fueling is done by mechanics instead of drivers. This allows them to take a few minutes to check fluids, tires, hoses and brake lines. “We’re looking for problems and heading them off before they happen,” Chapin says.

The preventive maintenance program requires that buses be brought in every 4,000 miles for an inspection of safety equipment, lights, brakes, tires, suspension — a checklist that spans two pages. “The inspection list for our wheelchair-lift buses is three pages,” Chapin says.

Proper communication with drivers is a top priority. Chapin says he goes up to the drivers’ room every day after the morning run and fields their complaints. This personal attention fosters good communication. Problems are noted and passed along to the maintenance staff.

Despite funding shortfalls over the past few years, Chapin says district administrators have provided strong support for the transportation program. “They’ve been behind me 100 percent,” he says.

“I’ve got a background in the fire service and have seen a lot of kids injured,” Gates says. “The bottom line is safety.”

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 129 buses, 174 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 6
Number of bus bays: 9
Annual mileage: 1,000,000
Students transported: 10,000
Schools served: 30

 


Award-winning program wins again

Park City School District
Park City, Utah

Keeping every bus meticulously maintained and clean is a key objective for the three members of Park City School District’s maintenance program.

Working with such a small staff, every effort made must be focused. And while most shops perform preventive maintenance, shop supervisor Brad Barker calls their program proactive maintenance.

Barker defines his program as one that attempts to address problems before they become too serious. “We are constantly inspecting for signs of possible mechanical failures,” he says.

The system must work well because Barker recalls few mechanical breakdowns during his tenure. In addition, the program has garnered gold and silver medals in a statewide recognition program for safe school buses.

Having a fleet of 27 buses and 73 other vehicles requires that Barker efficiently multitask. Because the fleet ranges from buses to pickups to grounds maintenance equipment, all employees must be versatile as well as efficient.

All three of the staff members have attended a vocational school for basic mechanic training. Barker says they’re all highly skilled, with many years of experience working on buses, over-the- road trucks and heavy equipment.”

The three maintenance employees are also required to undergo a minimum of 40 hours of training annually.

Because training is such a high priority, “every mechanic is qualified to perform every task,” Barker says. “This makes it easy to assign work and get work done in a speedy manner.”

Barker says the shop uses only brand-name replacement parts to ensure that proactive maintenance and repairs stand up to the test of time.

The 27 buses in the fleet are used to transport more than 1,600 students to eight schools. Their safety is paramount, but Barker also works hard to maintain a safe working environment for his staff. With only three mechanics, he can’t afford to lose anyone to a work-related injury.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 27 buses, 100 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 4
Annual mileage: 350,000
Students transported: 1,639
Schools served: 8
{+PAGEBREAK+}

Reform reaps reward

Wayne Board of Education
Wayne, N.J.

The transportation department at Wayne Board of Education counts on its maintenance staff to provide consistently well-maintained vehicles to transport 4,500 children a day to and from 11 in-district schools, and more outside Wayne.

Fleet manager Richard Skibitski says the strongest aspect of his shop is its people. Wayne’s three mechanics take care of 86 buses, which means it’s important that they have patience, are personable and also have extensive experience working with vehicles.

Wayne doesn’t require its mechanics to be ASE certified, but all of them have as much training as the district can get them, which includes training from themanufacturers during the purchasing process.

“We take advantage of whatever kind of training we can squeeze from the vendors, especially when we purchase the vehicles,” Skibitski says. “We always make sure that that’s in the bid specs — that they have to provide us with factory training materials.”

Wayne’s mechanics follow a state-mandated preventive maintenance program. Each bus, by law, requires a full inspection after either 3,000 miles or 90 days, depending on which comes first. “In some cases, that’s as often as every two or three weeks,” he says.

Skibitski uses FleetVision by VersaTrans to manage his vehicles, and he says that the software’s biggest benefit is its mileage-tracking feature.

Wayne’s maintenance staff stands out because it has gone through a transformation over the past few years. “In the past, mechanics were routinely used for everything from drivers to personal errand boys,” Skibitski says. “We put a stop to those practices and focused on the thing we should be focused on — maintaining the vehicles.”

Skibitski computerized maintenance scheduling and makes a point to consistently follow the recommended schedule for maintenance work. Wayne is also in the process of establishing a long-term bus replacement schedule, which will be new to the district.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 86 buses
Total shop staff: 4
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 980,000
Students transported: 4,500
Schools served: 23

 


Training helps keep up with technology

Webster Parish Schools
Minden, La.

As buses become more complex, so does the job of technicians. At Webster Parish Schools in the rural town of Minden, La., the maintenance department’s greatest challenge is keeping up with the advancing electrical systems in its new school buses.

To meet these and other maintenance demands, the department relies on a combination of training, vigilance and driver cooperation.

W.R. “Buster” Flowers, supervisor of transportation and school security, attributes much of the department’s success to the outstanding leadership of shop foreman Wayne Rolen.

Rolen, who is ASE certified, joined the district in 1996. Under his watch, the number of bus breakdowns has been cut by about half. In addition to saving time and money on repairs, the department has cut down on the number of spare buses it needs.

Rolen and mechanics Jeff Lair and Billy Powell have kept up with the advances in electronics in their new buses by earning certifications through various vendors, such as Caterpillar and Cummins.

“That helps us a lot, because if they weren’t so highly trained, we’d have to carry buses about 50 miles to have analysis and diagnostics run on them,” Flowers says.

The department has also effectively trained drivers in identifying problems and in how best to operate certain buses. “It’s especially important with the buses that have high-amperage alternators,” Flowers says. “Because if the drivers don’t know how to run those buses on high idle, they’ll burn them up.”

The team runs a preventive maintenance program in intervals of 2,000 miles. During the inspections, the mechanics pay special attention to the air brakes equipped on the district’s buses.

Also adding to the department’s success is its participation in an inmate labor program. Flowers, who is a reserve deputy and retired state trooper, picks up two inmates in the morning and drives them back at the day’s end. The men help with tasks such as washing buses and changing oil and filters.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 112 buses, 140 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 5
Number of bus bays: 4
Annual mileage: 580,000
Students transported: 4,301
Schools served: 22


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