Whether it’s 110-degrees of scorching heat in the summer or minus 20-degrees in the winter, we all expect our school buses to show up on time every day. I can say that from personal experience as I send my two kids to school every morning. When it comes to our kids, even 5 minutes of extra wait time can be gruesome.
Now, most people may not understand what it takes for the bus to show up at the right stop at the right time. There are approximately 500,000 school buses running every day carrying more than 24 million children from home to school. Annually, School buses keep 17.3 million cars off the road each morning, saving 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and $6 billion (Source: NHTSA). In general, the system works pretty smooth but when it comes to child safety; even one incident is too many.
Many factors / functions come into play for bus trips to go smoothly. However, I want to spend some time talking about school bus safety and reliability. And just like our cars every morning, you expect buses to start without fail and make their trips without breakdown.
How do you deal with breakdowns? The answer is very simple, don’t let buses break. Of course, you may be thinking “It’s machinery! It’s bound to break at some point.”
I agree with that statement. But then what am I saying?
I want to distinguish break down between planned and unplanned. A good maintenance shop / process should strive to fix everything as part of planned maintenance instead unplanned maintenance. And for this to happen you need,
- Timely preventative maintenance for your buses: For a local operations manager, it’s always a daily struggle between sending buses on routes or pulling them out for maintenance. Similar to how we don’t keep spare cars at home in case of breakdown, there are limits placed on how many spare buses can be kept. But with good fleet management systems and planning, the shop managers can now plan out the annual schedule for different levels of preventive maintenance
- Qualified and well-trained technicians: Once the bus is in the maintenance shop, you need well-qualified technicians to check / read the symptoms. It’s always easier to fix known issues instead of predicting possible issues. But predicting the symptom and putting the fix while the bus is in shop can avoid possible breakdown on the road. Hence it’s a no brainer for companies to invest in technician training / certifications. Master ASE certification is one way to ensure technician expertise. There are only 1,754 Master ASE certified technicians for school buses in whole country. That is approx. 8.7% of total technician work force (assuming a 25 to 1 bus:tech ratio)
- Right diagnostic tools: But there is only so far your qualifications can take you without the right diagnostics tools. With technology taking over everything in our lives, bus engines and parts are no different. The only way you can diagnose them is with the right diagnostic systems and software. Just like computers, there are different softwares for different makes / models of engines, transmissions or brake systems, etc. These tools work no differently than MRI machines – churning out codes that the maintenance employee should be able to understand and act upon.
- Right quality parts: Now what good will be the diagnosis if you don’t have the right quality parts in the shop to fix observed symptoms? This part is always easier said than done. Every maintenance manager has to walk a fine line between keeping the inventory low and keeping essential parts in stock. And this can only be achieved by using robust inventory systems, parts management, and strong supply chain with reliable vendors. I know most companies get to debate about OEM quality vs. generic parts. I will defer my viewpoint on this for a later day.
- Pre-trip inspection: This is the most important catch all step for ensuring the reliability and safety of buses. According to FMCSA, pre-trip inspection is one of the most violated rules in the industry. This 15-minute process must be conducted by every driver every morning before taking the bus on road. All drivers must be well trained to perform this process. If any issue is observed, it should be immediately corrected or an alternate bus should be arranged to operate the route. One of the common tools available to improve compliance is Zonar EVIR handheld.
So in summary, the only way you can make school buses safer and more reliable is by preventing breakdown.