School districts across the U.S. — small, medium, and large — are feeling the strain of budgets, rising student enrollment, increasing scrutiny, legal pressure, regulatory requirements, and more. For transportation departments, these struggles are compounded by often falling low on budget priority lists.
My background includes work as an emergency management systems dispatcher, motorcoach driver, and a school bus driver for 12 years. When I was hired by Central Valley School District in Spokane Valley, Wash., in dispatching in a communication center one year ago, I was asked by transportation management staff to be a catalyst to upgrade process, systems, and technology for our department. Improving operations infrastructure was one of my first projects.
Our district is made up of 13,000 students and approximately 100 vehicles transport them. We were functioning in a paper environment. There were many versions of documents floating around, with little to no coordination or consistency, causing significant confusion and errors.
Our top priority was to transition transportation staff to the use of accurate, real-time, and practical information for daily operations. This required an electronic solution. While Microsoft Office tools were evaluated, it became clear that web-based tools were the better solution, because it is easier to set up permissions among all employees, share documents, and make updates in real time.
We evaluated the Google G Suite product and found it to be applicable to many areas of transportation. While free of charge to and sometimes used by schools for educational collaboration, these products are not typically used for transportation operations. This is unfortunate, as operations could be significantly improved by real-time data availability and accuracy, flexibility, and managed information access. (We also use Transfinder for route planning and mapping.)
This value cannot be underestimated. Benefits to management include filling empty routes; managing absences, special circumstances training inventories; tracking driver seniority for trips, and special weather-related procedures. Another benefit: the IT director said it cost nothing.
Greater Access, Flexibility
Given the nature of the products, all this information is portable and available to anyone, based on access levels, at any location with internet on personal computers, tablets, or mobile devices. It also allows us to have duplicate versions — even if they are formatted differently — on screens at separate locations.
We manage information in our dispatch center, but it is displayed in a uniquely designed format in the driver’s lounge. For example, we aligned our editable versions of key spreadsheets to other versions designed for the large screen — vertically-oriented spreadsheets fit better on the large screen. However, they are edited by us on horizontally-oriented versions that automatically update in real time on the large screen version. This real-time capability is vital during early morning operations, especially when combined with inclement weather.
We currently use a “master grid,” which is a Google Sheet, to manage a matrix of all buses, routes, drivers, and assistants, as well as route start and end times. This grid also includes tabs with:
• Driver certifications.
• Staff contact information.
• The district calendar.
• Student overflow information matrix shared by various schools.
• Special transportation (gifted, homeless) program information.
• Snow route and delay procedures.
In addition to the “master grid” sheet, we built a Google Sheet we call our “sub worksheet.” We use this to manage substitute drivers and their daily a.m., p.m., and mid-day routes. It looks forward one week, is managed in real time, and color-coded for easy reference.
We manage these sheets in dispatch but display them on a 64-inch monitor in the driver’s lounge, along other web-based apps, including NOAA Weather, the weekly maintenance schedule, a rotating slide show with training and department information, and the Atomic clock (a device that uses a hyperfine transition frequency for more accurate time).
This operations board, or “Ops Board,” has become the heart of the transportation department. It has reduced recurring questions, clutter, misinformation, confusion, and dispatch distractions by 75%. I can equate this to a savings of .25 full-time equivalent (FTE) hours. Districts that are similar in size to ours could see this kind of service improvement and cost savings, or even greater.
It is important to note that transitioning to electronic infrastructure requires more screen space. Thus, transportation staff members — specifically in dispatch — need three monitors for taking advantage of the information. This can be a challenge given where transportation departments fall on the priority list for technology in the average school district. With some creative assistance from the IT department, we got it done. We implemented G Suite on a wireless network, added email addresses and edited permission levels, and installed a large screen donated by a school in the drivers lounge, along with the Chromebox that runs Google Chrome’s operating system.
Stuart Vogelman is a dispatcher for Central Valley School District in Spokane Valley, Wash. He has also worked as a senior executive, international business consultant, pastor, and chaplain for a state police agency. He can be contacted at (509) 558-5493.