Bus air-conditioning manufacturer Eberspaecher Suetrak develops the E-Control platform to provide centralized control of all the thermal management components on a bus.
Biloxi Public Schools — Biloxi, Miss.
Keeping costs down is of major concern to everyone in the transportation department at Biloxi Public Schools. Sam Bailey, transportation director, has put together a great team — each person with his own area of expertise — to ensure maximum efficiency of the fleet.
Richard Davis, the shop’s transportation manager, is currently working on his ASE master certification in school buses and has a background in automotive services. Randy Lane, the department’s operations supervisor and a former mechanic, has a background in maintenance-control analysis. Bailey, a former mechanic as well, has a background in maintenance-control analysis, information technology and personnel management.
The department, which was one of SBF’s Great Fleets Across America in 1999, boasts a 96 percent in-commission rate with its buses.
To keep costs down, the shop engages in what it calls routine price shopping, essentially a validation of whether quality is always necessary for items purchased.
“If we can get the same type of results from a cheaper product that we can from a high quality one, then we’re going to save money,” Bailey says.
Bailey and staff have implemented a no-idle policy, which saved the department almost $46,000 in its first year. Essentially, they weighed the costs of starters versus motors. The team realized that reducing the wear and tear of motors makes it possible to get more life out of them, which, in the long run, produces multiple benefits.
As a result of not running engines as much, the department is able to extend the life of oil and save about three barrels each year. It also reduces its fuel costs, another important consideration.
With regard to preventive maintenance, buses are maintained to ensure a maximum cradle-to-grave cycle. “Each technician uses a stringent inspection checklist,” Bailey says. “The checklist assures that every aspect of the bus is examined, components adjusted as needed and any oil leaks or seepage is attended to.”
Technicians receive on-the-job training, and must be ASE certified within one year of employment.
What’s a transportation director to do when his two veteran technicians retire, leaving no full-timers in the shop? If you’re of the same breed as Gabe Hayes of Bixby (Okla.) Public Schools, you lose the tie and do the job yourself.
In addition to his regular duties as director, Hayes handled maintenance of his operation’s 38 school buses (plus 10 other vehicles) for about three months until he found a successor for the previous mechanics — both of whom had served the district for about 20 years.
Hayes, himself a 10-year veteran at Bixby, says the going was certainly tough during that period.
“I spent the majority of my time in the shop working on the buses,” he says. “There were days where we were just trying to get enough of the vehicles fixed to get them out on the road.”
Fortunately, the department’s two part-time helpers were there to provide what their titles indicate: help. The pair took care of oil changes and other light work, and major jobs like transmission repairs were outsourced.
And while Hayes was out in the garage, secretary Kelli Reynolds and behavior manager Brian Skinner took up extra duties in the office.
The Bixby maintenance program brings the buses — most of which are Blue Bird TC2000s or All Americans — into the shop every 5,000 miles for oil and lube service. The mileage mark was recently raised from 4,000 to save money on oil and labor.
Hayes says that one of his shop’s strengths is the detailed record keeping of all its work, which is key in maintaining accountability.
“No matter how small the job — even if it’s a light bulb being changed — we keep records,” Hayes says. “It shows a pattern that we’re doing our job and that the buses are well maintained.”
Dallas Smith, a Bixby bus driver, explains Hayes’ commitment to the program like so: “I’ve seen him change clothes after the morning routes and replace a bad alternator or any other mechanical problem that arises. He can wear slacks and a tie one day and greasy jeans and a T-shirt the next.”
When it comes to years of experience with a school bus maintenance program, Ron Daniel is tough to beat. Carl Junction (Mo.) R-1 School District’s head technician began his career in the transportation department in 1973 — while he was still in high school.
Daniel signed on as an assistant to his father, who was the district’s bus mechanic at the time. When his father passed away in 1986, Daniel took over as head mechanic. Since then, he has helmed a highly rated, highly efficient shop.
“The entire maintenance program evolved and revolves around Ron’s ideas,” says Transportation Supervisor Woody Shoemaker. “He does an outstanding job.”
Daniel is currently the only full-time shop guy. The department also employs a part-time wash person, and during the month before bus inspections, a part-time helper is brought on board.
Perhaps the most distinct sign of the success of Daniel’s program is the inspection ratings it has earned. In the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s annual examinations, Carl Junction buses have passed at 100 percent for the past nine years straight. In 18 out of the past 19 years, the buses have scored 90 percent or better.
Daniel oversees a fleet of 37 buses, all but six of which are air-brake-equipped, front-engine Blue Bird Type Ds. The shop is air conditioned and includes four bays (one of which is a wash bay), a tool room, two offices and facilities for drivers. Daniel says there is no oil, grease or clutter to be found on the floor, which shines because of its waxed surface.
Carl Junction’s preventive maintenance program brings buses into the shop for oil change, lube and inspection every 2,000 miles. “Any small hint of a future problem, such as a seeping hydraulic hose, a little black around the exhaust seal, a worn belt, etc., is taken care of immediately,” Daniel says.
Daniel keeps maintenance costs down in a number of ways. One is by utilizing the district’s 10,000-gallon diesel tank. “In our smaller operation, we can go for quite a while on a full tank,” Daniel says. “This gives me a chance to shop around and to buy fuel during the lower price periods.”
Maintaining an aging fleet in an environment of increasing costs and flinty budgets is the challenge being successfully met at Columbus Public Schools.
With more than 700 vehicles, including 543 buses, to keep in top operating shape, the shop staff of 38 draws on experience, training and teamwork to get the job done.
This is an especially difficult task because the average bus is 12 years old. “We have 271 buses that are 17 years old or older,” says Steve Simmons, operations supervisor of the fleet services department. “Our plan is to replace 38 buses a year, but this is very difficult to do with the high cost of fuel and limited dollars available.”
In the meantime, technicians at the district’s four maintenance facilities maximize their resourcefulness to get the job done. Their efficiency is tracked using CCG Systems” FASTER, a computerized system that tracks maintenance activity. Technicians log their work orders into the system, allowing supervisors to track the status of repairs in real time through a network connecting the four shops. “This allows us to account for 100 percent of our parts and labor,” Simmons says.
Computers help to organize and analyze essential information, but another key to the district’s success is teamwork, which can’t be accomplished with a laptop. “Our guys help each other when needed with no questions asked,” says Phil Downs, fleet supervisor. “There have been times when one bus compound may be backed up. Instead of ignoring this shop, the others pitch in to help get the buses repaired. They are a true team.”
An emphasis on training and education helps to keep the technicians up to speed. Training classes are held each summer, and manufacturers are invited to provide training on everything from wheelchair lifts to multiplex wiring.
In addition, technicians are encouraged to obtain ASE certification. In fact, supervisors are required to have ASE master truck certifications, and some have multiple master certifications in bus and auto.
The eight-man maintenance crew at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District bases its success on the principles of teamwork and the overall goal of excellence.
The shop works under the direction of Head Mechanic Peter Marini. Seven technicians work in two-person teams on assigned buses, with the exception of one technician who independently services the district’s small vehicles. When a team falls behind due to unscheduled repairs, other team members absorb the burden to keep the fleet on the road.
Technicians are sent to workshops put on by the New York State Head Mechanics Association, manufacturer training sessions and the New York Association for Pupil Transportation’s Safety Camp maintenance training.
The technicians use a laptop computer to access engine diagnostics and trouble codes, reducing the need to send buses out for repairs. Maintenance is monitored by a computerized program that tracks repair trends and costs for all phases of maintenance.
“Road calls used to be a persistent problem in the past, but these guys really work together to keep our buses running at top levels of performance,” Transportation Director Peter Lawrence says.
School buses are inspected every 30 days or 2,600 miles for “A” service inspections and 364 days or 16,000 miles for “B” brake inspections. In state DOT inspections, which occur every six months, Fairport has maintained a 96-percent pass rate.
The mechanics work well with state inspectors to ensure that the maintenance program is efficient and effective. Following a 10-year bus replacement plan and standardizing the fleet help to keep costs down for taxpayers.
Effective communication skills help to keep morale high. Concerns about the equipment or drivers are quickly addressed. The shop meets every two weeks to openly discuss problems and how to improve maintenance operations. The concerns are shared with staff through department newsletters called “The Steering Gear” and “Town Hall Meetings.”
Seven years ago, Jerry McMillan, transportation supervisor at Greenville (Ohio) City Schools, was hired to turn around a discontented transportation department.
Fifty percent of the district’s buses had failed inspections; state inspectors were not thrilled.
“They told us if they found another bus in the poor shape they were in, they’d walk out and not return to inspect the others,” says McMillan. “That’s when I came in.”
McMillan quickly implemented a solid maintenance program. Morale improved greatly, turnover slowed considerably and the shop has had a 100 percent inspection pass rate ever since.
“We all worked together,” says McMillan. “That’s our greatest strength. Teamwork is important because students are job one.”
McMillan finds ways to keep costs down. According to the latest records available, in March 2004, average annual costs per mile for an Ohio school district was $3.80. Annual costs per mile during the same period at Greenville was $2.08.
Had McMillan’s costs mirrored those of the average district, his costs would’ve been $647,515 higher than they were.
McMillan also believes in the effectiveness of a uniform fleet and buys nothing but Thomas/Freightliner buses. The last eight buses purchased have the 906 Mercedes engine with engine brakes installed. Use of the engine brake has more than doubled rear brake life.
“Everyone works together to maximize the preventive maintenance program,” says McMillan of his mechanic Rob Widener, secretary Becky Hatfield and drivers.
Widener services buses every 3,000 miles. Some buses receive oil changes at 9,000 miles, others — like those with the Mercedes engines, every 15,000 miles.
After purchasing his Thomas buses, McMillan expressed concern over the high ratio of the 563 rear gear. Allison Transmissions and Mercedes gathered facts about the workload and terrain Greenville buses traveled and suggested a 529 gear, which is what McMillan spec’d on his new C2s.
“We’re getting about a mile per gallon more because of the ratio change,” he says.
Safety is not a mere idealistic notion floated around the offices and garages of Johnson School Bus Service to define the company’s identity. Safety is, rather, the moral fiber of this 64-year-old company. Aaron Johnson founded Johnson School Bus Service in 1942, converting three milk trucks into school buses.
More than six decades later, Aaron’s grandchildren — President Steve Johnson, Vice President Judy (Johnson) Holzmann and General Manager Dan Johnson — oversee the operation and maintenance of the company’s 500-plus buses.
The fleet travels almost 5 million miles every year, transporting 25,000 students for 14 school districts in southeast Wisconsin.
“Safety is paramount to maintaining our reputation and longevity,” says Gary Gonnering, service manager.
To that end, the company has developed a top-notch preventive maintenance program. These duties are carried out by 21 mechanics working in nine different service/maintenance locations.
Each terminal has an experienced shop foreman who supervises the mechanics, schedules the daily duties and responsibilities of the shop, orders parts and oversees the costs associated with vehicle maintenance.
Most corrective maintenance is performed on the premises, including engine, transmission and rear-end rebuilding, spring repair, tire changing and major and minor bodywork.
Gonnering credits much of the company’s maintenance efficiency to the experience and mechanical aptitude of its shop staff.
The fleet has an impressive state inspection record. “Our approval rating [for 2004-05] was an outstanding 96.3 percent, one of the highest ratings achieved by a school bus company in Wisconsin,” Gonnering says, adding that the company was touted on a recent local TV news investigation on school bus safety. In that report, Johnson’s 3 percent failure rate was compared with the much higher rates — one company posted a 48 percent failure rate — of other contractors in the state.
There is no “i” in “team,” but there is a “team” in “maintenance” (if you rearrange the letters a bit).
This is made clear by Laidlaw Education Services’ Kingston, N.Y., branch. The maintenance staff members have built a strong rapport with each other, with office staff and with the drivers.
“We all get along well, we talk in the morning and we know what we need to do — we’re a team,” says Shop Foreman Don Spring.
Branch Manager Blanche Temple says that she can count on the shop to make buses available when they are needed. And when drivers are needed, the technicians jump behind the wheel.
Spring says that the drivers feel comfortable coming to the shop when something is wrong with their bus, and the maintenance staff strives to give them one-on-one attention.
“Our drivers feel that we have the best mechanics in the county, if not the state,” says driver-trainer Grace Ogden.
The shop keeps on top of preventive maintenance with the help of a computer program called V-Track. Spring enters vehicle mileage every two weeks, and the program alerts him whenever a bus is coming up on scheduled service so that nothing is missed.
Staying vigilant has helped the branch perform well on biannual state DOT inspections. Temple says that they’ve maintained an inspection rating average of about 98 percent.
One of the key strengths of the maintenance program is the deep well of experience and knowledge it draws from. The team has about 60 years of experience combined. Spring himself is an ASE-certified master technician, and the others are working on their own ASE credentials.
All of them go through company training. Spring recently completed a course specifically for shop foremen that covered management of employees.
Temple says that leadership is another strength embodied by Spring. “When the foreman gives the mechanics a job, it’s guaranteed that it’s going to be done,” says Temple. “Things run smoothly here.”
With a fleet that’s growing — and a shop staff that’s not — the maintenance program at Poway Unified School District has managed to keep its customer satisfaction levels high, combining high operational efficiency with a top-notch training system.
Transportation Director Tim Purvis says the department receives plenty of recognition from external customers and inquiries from other school districts “because of our success with the vehicle inspections.”
What Purvis is referring to is the department’s impressive results in the quarterly bus inspections conducted by the California Highway Patrol. During these inspections, about a quarter of the district’s buses, from 35 to 37, are scrutinized for defects, both minor and major. Over the past 14 years, inspectors have found zero defects 27 times. The other “non-perfect” inspections generally turn up only one or two minor defects. Inspectors have found no out-of-service defects.
Phil Medved, the district’s vehicle maintenance supervisor, credits the shop’s determination to “do things right” for the impressive inspection results, which are well above the average in California.
Medved says his staff of 12, which includes a coordinator, four technicians, three mechanics, two service workers and two attendants, ensures that jobs are done properly. “At no time do they try to bandage anything,” he says. “Either it’s fixed right or it goes out of service.”
Building rapport with the district’s bus drivers is also important. To ensure that they know that a bus with a service request has actually been checked and, if necessary, repaired, the maintenance staff leaves what’s called a “steering wheel hanger” to alert the driver. “It’s a good communication tool,” Medved says. “When they see the hanger tag, they know that we’ve looked at the problem. If they see the problem again, they can bring the hanger tag back to us.”
Rohrer Bus Service got started more than 75 years ago with a horse-drawn wagon hauling children to and from school. Today, the operation has 630 vehicles, including 405 school buses.
Rohrer was recently honored as a Platinum Contractor by the Pennsylvania School Bus Association for its continuous service as a family operation and as one of the oldest school bus contractors in Pennsylvania, if not the nation.
Ed Allandar, vice president of maintenance, has been with Rohrer for more than 30 years and counts the company’s connection with local learning institutions as one of its greatest strengths.
“Many of our technicians come to Rohrer through cooperative work agreements from area vocational/technical schools,” he says. Allandar himself was the first co-op student hired by Rohrer.
Rohrer constantly evaluates its daily operations to monitor costs. An anti-idling program limits idling to five minutes. The vehicle specification program, which the company considers its greatest money saver, strives to reduce total life-cycle operating costs. To reduce maintenance costs, specifications include Thomas/Freightliner school buses equipped with Mercedes engines, rear air suspension and LED lighting.
“The Mercedes engines have also allowed us to extend our oil-drain intervals, further reducing costs for labor and supplies,” Allandar says.
Driver and technician training programs play a large part in increasing efficiency and reducing operating costs. Techs receive a minimum of three trainings each year, one at a factory training facility and two in-house. ASE certification is not required at Rohrer but is greatly encouraged.
Preventive maintenance schedules begin with a comprehensive inspection at the 5,000-mile/60-day service level and continue with 10,000-mile/120-day, 25,000-, 50,000- and 100,000-mile services. Oil analysis and coolant test are performed at each “B” service (10,000 miles), and road service technicians provide basic weekly checks.
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Fill out our annual Maintenance Survey, which covers such key topics as school bus age, parts expenditures, and technician pay.
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