James Blue, School Bus Fleet's general manager and publisher, weighs in on recent bills across the U.S. that have taken aim at school bus safety.
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. Applying digital know-how
Until very recently, most video surveillance systems for the school transportation market were based on analog technology. This means that school bus cameras were all 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. Digital technology in mobile video surveillance is not a novel idea. 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, director of sales and marketing for Silent Witness, a video monitoring systems manufacturer in Surrey, British Columbia. “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. Digital vs. analog
Fleet operators strive to improve safety and security while simultaneously controlling costs. For this reason, operators interested in acquiring video surveillance systems should know what advantages digital technology provides over traditional analog systems. Digital systems are significantly more expensive than their analog counterparts, so it will take some careful consideration to decide whether their benefits outweigh their costs. The potential for integration with computers is one of the most obvious advantages of digital technology. “Digital systems will allow you to pull footage frame by frame via a computer or laptop,” says Judie Souknary, marketing director for Houston-based Safety Vision. This function simplifies the transfer of important video materials between school officials. “You can freeze images and send frames to administrators and other people by e-mail,” she says. Another major factor is that digital products give you a much longer recording time and storage capacity than analog products. “For instance,” says Souknary, “you can record about a week’s worth of footage versus eight to 24 hours on an analog system.” Using CD-ROMs and computer hard drives, digital cameras will allow you to store many more images in a much smaller space. Managing digital images opens up a wide range of possibilities as well. You can store the images for long periods of time without having to worry about degradation of video footage. Warkentin says the fact that you don’t have to exert energy managing and maintaining videotapes is an attractive part of digital technology. “When you are working with an analog system, the tapes are recorded on over and over again, and the quality of the tape degrades,” he says. To overcome the problem, you must constantly monitor video quality and make sure you have fresh tapes on hand. “And from a service perspective,” adds Warkentin, “the recording device itself does not require mechanical or moving parts, decreasing the risk of malfunction.” Customized options
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 allow 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 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, head of communications for Mirror Lite Co. in Rockwood, Mich. Additional features of video surveillance equipment include 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. Says Souknary, “The customer has an endless amount of applications to choose from; whatever they request, we can provide it for them.” The major players
With so many companies producing the necessary equipment, mobile video surveillance products are being used extensively in pupil transportation. Here are a few of the most prominent suppliers along with some of their most popular products: Safety Vision
Earlier this year, Safety Vision became one of the first companies to offer a digital camera system for school buses with the release of its RoadRecorder. This system is available with a video storage program, audio capability, a removable hard drive and a computer or laptop video reviewing station. The Observer is Safety Vision’s analog video observation system, powered by the bus’ 12-volt battery connection. The Observer’s VCR is programmable to include driver information and signal indicators such as stoplights and brake lights. The cameras can record in color or black and white, with two styles of VCR, an optional camcorder, a hand-held test monitor, camera boxes and decoy cameras. Silent Witness
Silent Witness offers several camcorder and mounted camera models for school bus surveillance. The camcorders are contained in enclosures that can also stand alone and serve as decoys. They are small and light, making them easy to transfer between buses. The SWS310 is the company’s complete analog video system with camera, VCR and a range of options. Helping to reduce loading and unloading accidents, Silent Witness has designed a stop arm video recording system. Housed in a weatherproof enclosure, this camera can be mounted outside or inside the bus. It activates when the stop arm extends and records everything that occurs in the loading and unloading zone. The system also includes a microphone so that the driver can record comments about an incident. Radio Engineering Industries
REI engineers, designs, develops and manufactures the BUS-WATCH VCR and camera surveillance system for school buses. This product is built with industrial grade components in order to withstand a rugged environment. REI places emphasis on limiting maintenance and repair by using heavy-gauge wiring and sturdy mounting systems. REI’s VCR uses analog programming innovations such as automatic correction for daylight savings time, automatic leap year correction and condition monitoring for specific vehicle characteristics. The BUS-WATCH system consists of an industrial video camera and VCR with an array of lens, mounting and programming options. Rosco
Rosco Inc., a maker of mirror systems, visors and video surveillance equipment in Jamaica, N.Y., features the Video Camera Unit (V.C.U.), mounted in a housing that can be quickly locked and unlocked, allowing the camera to be moved between buses with ease. Attaching directly to the mounting plate, the camera and housing create a single, easily accessible unit that activates automatically. When the camera is removed from the housing, the electrical source that powers the recording is automatically shut off. The housing will continue to serve as a decoy, however, as a red LED light will activate even if there is no camera present. Ben Englander, vice president of engineering for Rosco, says that the V.C.U.’s housing design is a notable advantage to the system. “The camera automatically engages when you slide it into a blind-fit connection. It is simple to maneuver and install because there’s no need to plug anything in or work with wires,” he says. Mirror Lite
The Double Take is a dual-purpose surveillance and security system designed by Mirror Lite Co. The system has a VCR unit and two miniature cameras, each performing a specific duty. One camera functions as a security tool, using a heat sensor and an infrared motion detector to monitor activity around buses when they’re not in use. Any forced or unauthorized entry will trigger the sensors, and the camera will silently start recording. This technology requires very little energy consumption because only changes in heat and movement will activate it. The other camera in the system activates when school bus flashing lights are turned on. This camera serves as a tool for observing the exterior of the bus. Both units of the Double Take function independently of the driver, requiring no manual responsibilities. The footage from each camera is recorded with important text, such as time and date, imprinted on the video. Other manufacturers
Several other companies provide video surveillance products for the school bus industry, emphasizing advantages in technology, user-friendliness and reliability. For instance, Robotics Technologies in Joliet, Ill, offers the Bus-Cam video system, which can automatically rewind at the end of a tape and then continue recording. Lewisville, Texas-based Mobile Video Products has a video observation system capable of filming in low light and recording after the bus is shut off. BusVision in Atlanta makes a digital video recorder that captures, stores, searches, plays back and even allows e-mail transfer of footage using all-digital components. Avoiding pitfalls
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, “If the approach is to simply replace stand-alone VCRs with stand-alone digital video recording units, organizations are at risk for encountering the same challenges that they initially faced with VCRs – lack of reliability and time wasted on maintenance.” March Networks, an Ottawa, Ontario-based video and security solutions producer, is offering a system with a centralized management program to help users curb these problems. Another hurdle is the fact that watching video footage can be time consuming. “No matter how many cameras you have on your bus or how great the technology you have, you will always need people on hand to view the tapes,” says Cheryl Dalton, transportation coordinator for Ballston Spa (N.Y.) Central School District. It will take organized operations management to set up an efficient system for maintaining video footage. Perhaps the most glaring weakness in school bus video surveillance, 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.” Dave Warkentin, director of sales and marketing for Silent Witness, agrees. “The quality of the audio is dependent upon the location of the microphone, and although the microphone can be placed in different locations, it is still difficult to get good audio,” he says. Digital products will correct some of these problems, but sound will always be a challenge, he says. Beyond its quality alone, audio can pose a potential problem with regards to personal privacy rights. Recording audio along with video has been a relatively controversial issue in the security industry for years. At press time, wire services were reporting that a former student was filing a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district asking for $50,000 in damages. The suit claims that the district violated privacy rights by using the bus video surveillance to record student conversations.
James Blue, School Bus Fleet's general manager and publisher, weighs in on recent bills across the U.S. that have taken aim at school bus safety.
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