Hopkins County Schools has recently updated the communication devices used to track and communicate with school buses, hopefully make bus transportation safer for students.
Drew Taylor, HCS Chief Information Officer, said FirstNet exists because the government contracted AT&T to build a cellular network that first responders could use through emergencies to ensure connectivity.
“Schools are allowed to use it because of the situations and disasters that schools have to deal with,” he said. “The last thing you want is something to happen in a school, and nobody is able to communicate in the administration.”
Assistant Superintendent Damon Fleming said what is unique about FirstNet is that is a secure and encrypted network that runs through cell signals, so it cannot be picked up by scanners or old radios.
“These devices do not require as much signal as a cell phone requires to make a phone call,” he said. “It gives us pretty much nationwide coverage, where before we were limited to pretty much Hopkins County with the range on our radios.”
Brandon McClain, director of Transportation, said the drivers can communicate more clearly in areas of the county where the previous radios couldn’t get a signal.
Each school bus in the Hopkins County School District received an upgraded communication system to replace the old CB radios.
Taylor said the new communication system looks like a tablet but is mounted inside the bus, so no one can pick it up and play with it. There is still a handheld microphone that drives can pick up to talk through like a CB radio, but the new system is so much more.
The transportation administration can put the bus drivers into different communication groups, so they don’t have to talk to everyone. There is also tracking in the new system, so transportation can see where a bus is in real time and where it has been.
The tablet-like devices have Google Maps installed on them, so if a bus driver is driving a group of students out of a state, they can use Google Maps to navigate where to go. Taylor said the devices also have Google Translate on them in case someone needs to communicate with non-English speaking families.
“That is what we are using them for now. We are hoping to integrate more tools and solutions with them,” Taylor said.
Taylor and Fleming said they are wanting to integrate a few more tools into the system like real-time cameras and turn-by-turn navigation.
“That will help us in cases where we have substitute drivers driving a route they are not familiar with,” said Fleming. “We are not there yet with that system, but it will be used in the same platform.”
The new devices were bought using a federal grant. He said the school’s old radio system was needing to be updated and it was cheaper to use the grant money to pay for the new system rather than updating the old system.
“We were going to have to put an investment into a new radio system and by going with this system we were able to have nationwide coverage, have a more secure system, and by using the tablet-like devices we can use that to do multiple pieces with them,” said Fleming.
The school will roll new programs slowly so as not to overwhelm the drivers and allow them time to get used to the new programs.