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June 01, 2001  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How Electronic Organizers Can Streamline Fleet Management

From organizing the office to tracking engine diagnostic data, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are emerging as a valuable tool for the school transportation industry.

by Joseph Campbell, Assistant Editor


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Transportation officials are constantly searching for new technology to make their jobs easier. One of the more cutting-edge technologies currently in use is the hand-held electronic organizer, also known as a personal digital assistant or PDA.

PDAs are small, battery-powered computers with multiple information storage and retrieval capabilities. Commonly used to store appointments and addresses, these electronic organizers are proving to be a boon for the transportation industry. With a job characterized by seemingly endless stacks of driver schedules, bus routes and parts inventory sheets, transportation directors find a quick remedy for clutter and disorganization in these hand-held devices.

"I supervise 65 drivers and four mechanics, and I use a Palm Pilot to store all of their phone numbers, as well as emergency numbers for everyone from members of the police department and the superintendent of schools to the principals of all schools," says Jennisse Schule, transportation supervisor for the Wayne (N.J.) Board of Education. She is referring to her Palm IIIxe, a popular model of PDA that uses programs like QuickOffice to run Word and Excel programs. Yet, Schule is only scratching the surface of her PDA's capabilities.

Storing, retrieving data
The Palm IIIxe, for instance, can store up to 10,000 addresses, schedule five years' worth of appointments, list 3,000 memos and to-do items and keep track of up to 400 e-mails. Other models have added features such as built-in microphones, wireless Internet access, increased memory and cell phone capability. All of these functions are packaged in a pocket-sized device.

Another handy feature of most PDA models is a compatibility with desktop, laptop and notebook computers. Usually, PDAs come with cables or docking stations that enable them to connect to a personal computer and exchange information, using a technique called "syncing." Important data can also be copied and pasted from one computer to another, files can be updated and spreadsheets can be transferred. This data-sharing capability is beneficial for fleet managers because it allows them to access extensive databases of vehicle information from the field.

In combination with a cell phone, a PDA can be used to service the transportation needs of a school district from virtually anywhere.

Chuck Holden, director of operations for Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Coon Rapids, Minn., uses his PDA to store information that he can view when he's away from the office. "I use the contact list at 5 a.m. to call bus companies and the superintendent from my car," he says.

Working from the field has become standard procedure for many PDA users in the pupil transportation industry.

Tracking shop records
PDAs are also becoming a valuable tool for fleet maintenance personnel. With today's engines, the majority of diagnostic work is done via computer. Several major engine manufacturers now provide technology that allows information from engines to be downloaded to a PDA. Detroit Diesel recently introduced its Pocket Diagnostic Link, which connects a PDA directly to an engine's electronic control module to diagnose trouble or monitor its condition and performance levels. The link costs about $300. This fee does not include the PDA itself.

Since the majority of new buses now have electronic engines and transmissions, many transportation personnel believe there is potential for growth of the PDA market in the school transportation industry.

Cathy Staggs, director of transportation for the Jefferson County School District in Birmingham, Ala., explains that using hand-held assistants in combination with the buses' Cummins engines can be a cost-effective solution for fleet maintenance. "Because our school system is in dire straits financially, we opted to try them, and they saved us the expense of having to buy laptops for each of the mechanics in the county doing minor repair work," she says.

Companies like Detroit Diesel and Cummins Inc. provide all of the necessary software, and they have trained representatives dedicated to getting transportation managers accustomed to their technology. This makes it surprisingly simple for a school bus fleet to integrate PDAs into its maintenance system.

Choosing the right fit In addition to convenience and multifunctionality, most users claim that PDAs are easy to understand and operate. However, there are certain factors to consider in choosing the right PDA for your needs. Research the following five points before making an investment.

1. Operating system
There are only two major operating systems used by PDAs. They are similar to each other and use many of the same types of software. Phil Johnson, director of operations for the north district of DATTCO Inc., a school bus contractor in New Britain, Conn., uses a Hewlett- Packard Jornada and attests to its user-friendliness. "It's Windows-based and really easy to use," he says. "You don't need to be a computer scientist."

At DATTCO, Johnson oversees a fleet of about 925 buses with 11 managers. The HP Jornada impressed him so much that he decided to buy one for each of his managers. "We use them constantly to keep in contact with each other. I wouldn't have purchased one for everyone if I didn't recommend them, because they're not cheap," says Johnson.

2. Price range
PDAs in the Jornada line come in several different models, ranging from $350 for the most basic model to about $1,000 for a sophisticated, hand-held PC. Several other popular brands of PDAs are also available in a wide range of prices. As technology improves, prices change rapidly, but average PDAs currently fall within the $100 to $600 range.

The more expensive devices usually include advanced features like account managing programs, electronic book reading programs and multimedia such as music and video players. Many are outfitted with software that can be upgraded or programs that require additional software to perform special functions.

3. Optional features
PDA users in the transportation industry, however, may not be concerned with buying the most advanced equipment. With so many different brands available, it might be a good idea to start with a basic model. "I wouldn't get the latest version. I always drop back a model or two," says Gene McFall, manager for the Hoover City (Ala.) Board of Education. "This makes them less expensive," he says.

Others stress that PDAs will eventually become more useful to school transportation. Holden, of Anoka-Hennepin Schools, says that PDAs look like a good resource but are so new that it is difficult to determine if they are worth the investment. "I think they fall into the 'nice, optional equipment, not necessary' category at this point," he says. "They could be [essential equipment] in the future when enough people have used them and some creative ideas [for their use] have surfaced."

In any case, the most important question to ask yourself when buying a PDA is, "How much do I need one?" For anyone in the transportation industry, it would be wise to take some time considering the possible uses for a PDA and to find the best deal on a model with only the features you require.

4. Data entry method
Some data entry methods may be inconvenient to use on such a small device. "There may be some other helpful features out there that I haven't necessarily been able to find, but my problem is that it can be time consuming to input information into the Palm," remarks Schule of the Wayne Board of Education.

Two pieces of equipment are available that help streamline the data-entry process -- the stylus pen and the portable keyboard. Touch-screen technology enables a PDA to identify handwriting from the stylus pen and convert it into text. The portable keyboard, which runs in the $100 range, is recommended for users with heavier data-entry needs.

5. Weight and durability
Remember to choose a device that is sturdy enough to meet your particular requirements. Today's PDAs range from the thickness of an average magazine to that of a paperback book. The smallest versions weigh as little as 1.4 ounces, but many are significantly heavier.

According to manufacturers, PDAs have, on average, a very low crash rate relative to their size. However, they are battery powered, so excessive vibrations and movement, which can be expected when working in the school bus industry, may present an issue for the more active user. Due to questions about whether PDAs are built to stand the test of time, several manufacturers are designing more durable PDA units for industrial purposes.

Some PDAs also include troubleshooting functions to help combat electronic glitches. Johnson of DATTCO, for example, says that his PDA is equipped with a solution to the biggest problem he experiences. "I've had it freeze every so often, but it has a reset button that makes it go right back to where it was before."

Student tracking, in the palm of your hand
Symbol Technologies Inc., a leading provider of mobile data management systems based in Holtsville, N.Y., is specially designing hand-held devices for school transportation use. As a licensee of Palm products, Symbol takes a Palm PDA and enhances it by adding a bar code scanner and LAN and WAN capability. One such device, which is presently in the research and development phase, is a type of hand-held scanner that tracks student movement and locates children.

"The vision is to be able to take attendance on the bus, instead of waiting for kids to be in the classroom," says Andrew Schenker, director of education marketing, K-12, for Symbol. When the bus pulls up to the school building, for example, the bus would use a LAN connection to upload information about the children onboard and send it to the school.

The device would be able to detect whether the same number of children get off the bus as the number that got on, and vice versa. It would make sure kids got off at the right stops and went to the right classes, says Schenker. It is also hoped that such a PDA would reduce insurance premiums by allowing the driver to know the exact number of kids getting off and on, when and where.

Schenker attributes the motivation behind developing this product to an obvious flaw in our priorities. In today's world, he says, "We track our FedEx packages better than we track our kids."


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