Image of a school bus with a pull-out visual of FirstNet communication equipment used to connect the Carroll County, Maryland bus fleet.

FirstNet keeps students safe on school buses

Buses taking students to and from schools in Carroll County, Maryland are now equipped with FirstNet. With these advanced communication capabilities, the fleet can stay in touch with school headquarters at all times, enhancing the safety and security of students. 

The county school system has contracts with 40 different bus companies to provide more than 300 buses that transport 23,000 students. Mike Hardesty, director of the Carroll County Public Schools’ (CCPS) Transportation Services Department, and his team oversee the entire operation and are responsible for making sure the buses are maintained, including investing in new technology. He said that communicating with bus drivers was done poorly before installing FirstNet in October 2020, noting, “We were living on borrowed time without the capability of having a system-wide emergency communications system.”

“Every bus had a cell phone provided by the bus contractor, but we had no way to effectively broadcast an emergency message at the same time to the entire fleet,” said Hardesty. “We would have to call each contractor and let them know that this message needs to get to their drivers. They would then call their drivers’ cell phones. A driver cannot answer their phone legally – they must pull their bus over, park in a safe spot, and then answer the phone. It was very inefficient and not what we wanted in this day and age, for sure.”

Leading the way in Maryland

Carroll County is the first school system in Maryland to implement the use of FirstNet on its school buses. Hardesty and his team had been looking at various radio systems and other cellular-based systems when they learned about FirstNet from a colleague in another county school system.

Anita Stubenrauch, CCPS operations performance manager, led the research and testing of FirstNet. She soon determined that the Enhanced Push-to-Talk (EPTT) solution on FirstNet met their requirements and provided the type of communication and features they wanted. This included the ability to mass communicate, set up talk groups, and communicate with individual bus drivers or groups. Further testing demonstrated that FirstNet provided a more reliable cellular network for the county.

“FirstNet solved a really big problem for us by giving the county the best possible cellular network for PTT,” she said. “We could rapidly communicate to the entire fleet in an emergency in a way that they could hear without having to violate a law or having to pull their bus over.”

Stubenrauch said they tested the phones and the network and were happy with the coverage, the ability to communicate, and the way they could set up talk groups. She added, “It worked well so the decision was pretty easy for us once we saw it in action.”

Hardesty added, “It was also helpful that when we talked with our county sheriff and the county’s public safety agencies. We learned that they are also using and testing FirstNet. That just reinforced it for us that this is a good product to go forward with.”

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees agreed that the ability to communicate in every emergency is paramount when it comes to school safety.

“We’ve had many incidents take place right as school starts or just as it’s ending. It’s when everyone is bottlenecked at areas getting on and off school buses,” he said. “We’ve also had incidents where we needed to get buses rerouted to a particular school, and you have to pick up the phone and call the bus carrier and say, ‘Can you get five buses to this school so we can get kids out and transported to another location?’”

With FirstNet, communications like these are no longer an issue. The Transportation Services Department oversaw the installation of ruggedized devices that are mounted to the buses’ dashboard. The drivers do not have to interact with the phones because they are installed with a kit that gives them a microphone and a speaker. The drivers have a one-touch button that automatically connects them with the CCPS Transportation Services Department.

A cost-effective school safety solution

Like many school systems, Carroll County faces tight budgets without room to spare. Through a unique partnership, the FirstNet solution has not cost the school system a dime.

“We entered into a five-year agreement with a company called Bus Patrol that provides external cameras to catch violators of the school bus stop law,” said Hardesty. “The funding from those violations pays for the cameras, FirstNet and EPTT service, a GPS bus tracking system, and enhancements to our routing system.” The Sheriff’s office manages the violations. If there is any revenue shared, it comes back to the Sheriff.

Hardesty said, “We get the protection of the cameras, and we get all of this technology free to the school system. I can sleep better at night knowing we now have this capability to communicate, which we have never had before.”

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