The transportation maintenance department at Shenendehowa Central School District consists of 11 school bus technicians, two body technicians and two mechanic helpers. These 15 employees are responsible for servicing a fleet of 203 school buses and 27 support vehicles.
Even with a heavy workload, the Clifton Park, New York-based district boasts noteworthy figures. For example, technicians are able to accomplish same-day turnarounds for 87% of buses that come in with a defect or issue. Also, Shenendehowa’s transportation maintenance department was recognized at the end of 2015 by its insurance carrier, Utica National Insurance Group, for achieving an out-of-service rating of 1.1% or less over a three-year period.
Between comprehensive vehicle inspections, a unique shift arrangement, and emphasized safety and training programs, Shenendehowa Director of Transportation Alfred Karam oversees a smooth-running and efficient operation.
Keeping buses on the road
Karam and George Geel, Shenendehowa’s fleet maintenance supervisor, attribute the department’s low out-of-service rating mainly to its strong maintenance program and efficient staff schedule.
The shop’s maintenance team checks over 200 points on each bus that comes in for preventive maintenance. The district maintains a fairly standardized fleet, with buses of similar makes and models.
“If we spot an issue, we can go through all of the buses and rectify the problem before it becomes a bigger problem,” Geel says. “This is also a great way to lower our overhead, simplify training and make it easy from an operational standpoint.”
A critical part of the district’s maintenance effort relies on pre- and post-trip inspections conducted by the school bus drivers. Upon receiving information of defects from the drivers, technicians are able to complete same-day turnarounds for 87% of the buses with defects. Seven percent are turned around in two days, while 5% fall between three and six days. The last 1% is over six days.
“We are proud of our technicians’ and school bus drivers’ efforts to make sure our fleet is maintained in tip-top shape and available to support the educational needs of our students,” Karam says. “The communication between dispatch, school bus drivers and bus technicians is outstanding.”
“If we spot an issue, we can go through all of the buses and rectify the problem before it becomes a bigger problem.” – George Geel, Fleet Maintenance Supervisor, Shenendehowa Central School District
Also contributing to the shop’s success is a staggered two-shift effort. Half of the first shift maintenance staff begins their day at 5 a.m., and the other half starts at 6 a.m. The whole second shift arrives together at 2 p.m. and stays until 10 p.m.
Each shift is led by a senior automotive repairer. With this extended schedule, the district is able to keep buses running during the day, saving most of its inspections for second shift. The district is allotted more flexibility and can refrain from repairs during school hours.
The two-shift effort also allows the maintenance department to save on facility space.
“I can do maintenance with only half of the shop space when I split the team into two shifts,” Geel says. “I’d need six more bays if all 15 shop staff members were here at one time.”
Karam adds, “Smaller districts run just a single shift, but because we have 203 buses, the only way to run efficiently with the size of our facility in mind is by staying on top of preventative maintenance and utilizing our two shifts on the same days.”
Inventory, data tracking
With a maintenance department open until 10 p.m. — when most parts stores have long since closed — it’s important to maintain a healthy and accurately tracked internal inventory of products.
Geel works closely with the department’s parts clerk, Rich Knapick. He has spent the past two years identifying obsolete parts, reorganizing the parts room to make it more efficient, and aligning the parts database with the shop’s actual inventory to best manage its supply and decrease overhead cost.
“We have developed a very fast-moving parts analysis system,” Geel says. “We have about half a million dollars in parts here, but if we don’t use something for a year, we simply won’t stock it in inventory anymore.”
Geel tracks road failures and other on-board trends as well to look for commonalities.
“If one bus does something that raises our interest, we can go look across the fleet to see if other buses are having that same failure,” Geel says.
Geel and Karam are firm believers in the three “D”s: data-driven decisions. The shop uses many electronic diagnostics to track data and help the fleet run more efficiently.
According to Geel, the heart of their electronic tools is Tyler Technologies’ Versatrans Fleetvision, which helps the team track preventive and corrective maintenance, inspection cycles, oil and filter changes, and parts inventory.
Shenendehowa also uses a variety of other maintenance-related programs, including Navistar’s OnCommand Connection, Diamond Logic, NEXIQ Technologies’ PocketMaxx, Cummins’ INSITE, and Snap-on’s SOLUS Edge.
Increased safety measures
In the past year, Shenendehowa has dedicated itself to improving the availability and display of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Safety plays a huge part in our operation,” Karam says. “We worked hard to try and make sure that there’s no reason any technician can get hurt on the job.”
The added challenge for the department is ensuring that the shop’s second-shift employees, who are working even after the typical business day ends, are also equipped with the same safety amenities.
Each employee is issued his or her own set of PPE. The maintenance department has also established a hub where extra items are always stored, from new pairs of gloves to welding gear. Most extra equipment hangs on a 4-by-8-foot board that Geel brought to fruition just last year.
“With extra equipment always readily available and on display, an employee can really just grab what they need to protect themselves on the spot if something rips,” Karam says.
The district is also focused on upgrading equipment regularly. For example, two portable Bumper Air Lifts were recently purchased, making it easier to work on buses in bays that don’t have in-ground lifts.
“It’s also more efficient and helps reduce injuries, again building a safer operation overall,” Karam says.
Over the past two years, Geel and Karam have been working together to boost the shop’s training opportunities. Major vendors are scheduled to give the shop’s technicians quarterly training sessions.
The technicians are also members of the New York Head Mechanics Association, by which they get monthly training on different aspects of mechanics. Each year, a technician is also sent to IC Bus’ manufacturing facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for education.
“Training is so important because everything changes so quickly from year to year, and we need to stay on top of it all to prevent bus breakdowns,” Geel says.
As for Shenendehowa’s school bus drivers, aside from the state-mandated training hours, the district arranges hands-on training with maintenance staff members. The driver trainers will bring trainees directly into the shop to review bus mechanics from top to bottom.
“A mechanic will personally go through everything with the drivers,” Geel says. “We want everyone to feel part of the team. Rather than an ‘us against them’ mentality, we want drivers and mechanics to know they are working on the same team.”
According to Karam, all transportation department employees spend hours in training to work on understanding all systems on board the bus.
“Through repetition, drivers and mechanics alike become pretty good at identifying defects,” Karam says. “And that’s what keeps our buses on the road.”