Wednesday, October 05, 2005

School Bus CCTV Video Surveillance Guide for School Boards and Transportation Directors

(repost by request) In the last three years I have had the pleasure of meeting with hundreds of transportation directors, contractors, dealers and school boards about the use of video surveillance in school buses. Unfortunately, most of the time something very serious has happened to necessitate the reason for our discussion. Vandalism, bullying, driver or passenger behavior are the usual culprits. One thing is for certain, many of the school bus fleets that have installed surveillance equipment have continued with the practice to this day because incidents continue to happen on school buses every day. You've probably seen the odd one on the news. Usually once every couple of months a wayward tape makes it into the local news room and gets broadcast....ouch!!. Being that we are currently in the throws of prepping buses for back to school and entering another school year I have put together some notes for transportation directors considering this type of equipment for their upcoming budget. For others, this may be a good reference for you as you work through the different generations of equipment available for school bus student monitoring...keeping the equipment functional and making that equipment work for another year. Why the Use of Video Surveillance on School Buses? Over 200,000 school buses currently use on-board surveillance to act as a second pair of eyes while the driver (chief bus chaperone) keeps his/her eyes on the road. Many school districts used to (still some today) have volunteer or paid monitors ride the bus with the driver to act as a ride chaperone for unruly students. As time has progressed, less and less volunteers were available and budgets diminished. Purchasing school bus cameras became an affordable alternative and the practice took root across the country. The main reason for the watchful eye has been to have an accurate record of bad student behavior. Usually something happens on the bus and then there is a parent, principal, driver meeting to work through the 'he said, she said' details. Now with the use of a camera the details are unbiased and presented as they happen. Meetings are shorter and less emotionally charged. Drivers like the technology because it takes the onus off them to prove that students have done something wrong. The TD needs only to 'pull the tape' to see what happened. More recently there have been other reasons for surveillance like driver behavior, vandalism, bullying and missing kids. Typically what happens is that the school board reacts to a specific incident and seeing the risks involved and problems in resolution they resort to making an investment in recording equipment. To a smaller degree recording equipment has been used as a management tool for accident recording, driver training and route management. One of the most obvious benefits reported about school bus video systems is the 'deterrent' effect on students. Cameras are installed on the bus and the student behavior is noticeably better because they believe they are being watched. My experience is that this effect tends to taper down a few months after the installation and returns each time a bad student has been reported and the video has been used. Stop Arm violations have also become another reason for surveillance. Every year, children are killed by drivers that have ignored school bus stop arms. Video systems now include the ability to trigger external cameras to record those violators. Aggresive laws are now in place in many states for aggressive fines and prosecution of stop arm violators. For some countys the revenue from ticket fines is routed back to state or school districts to facilitate purchase of more safety equipment. Currently there are a number of initiatives on the east coast and mid south that will automate the process of recording and ticketing the stop arm violators. (Stop Arm Camera Study , TRB White Paper , NHTSA 2000 Report) How Do These Systems Work? Generally speaking school bus video recording systems are designed to start recording once the bus is turned on. The system will continue to record until the vehicle is turned off or when the tape or hard drive is full. Most systems are set to recycle and re-record new images over old to minimize media handling. Most systems will give you the ability to choose from black and white or color camera set ups. Additionally, you can have audio, event indicators (brakes, doors, lights, turn signals, speed) and an additional camera for stop arm monitoring. Newer systems allow you GPS and wireless networking connectivity. Essentially the system continues to record until an incident or maintenance cycle and then the storage tape or hard drive is removed, replaced or reviewed. For our industry counterparts with hard winters. These systems also have temperature sensors, heat strips and delay on timers to allow systems to warm up during those brisk mornings. There is also a delay-off timer to keep the system recording for a designated amount of time after the bus is turned off to ensure recording while kids egress the bus and to observe drivers checking the bus before locking it up for the night. Types of Systems School bus video monitoring has evolved into three different types of recording systems - camcorder, VCR and digital. The first of these systems is the older camcorder style system with enclosure. This style has been around the longest and utilizes a steel or plastic enclosure with a windowed door and mounting plate for a modified Panasonic, Sony or Canon camcorder. The camcorder is modified with wiring that allows the record function to be triggered by the ignition circuit of the bus. The camcorder is mounted and then secured within the enclosure to keep from prying fingers. Kids usually don't know whether a camera is in the enclosure or not allowing operators the benefit of deterrence with a decoy set up. This set up provides for about 4 hours of recording before recycle. The second system set up is a VCR (ruggedized for the mobile environment). This is coupled with a camera which is mounted on the bus ceiling or bulkhead and then wired into the bus for power and operation. You will get up to nine hours of recording with a VCR. Digital systems are pretty well the same as the VCR set up. In fact, many of the newer digital systems act as a retrofit or replacement for current VCR sytems. Recording times on digital systems will vary depending on hard drive size but usually will provide a minimum of 30 hours and up to 600 hours with frame rate and compression adjustments. Digital systems are growing in popularity mainly because of the increased recording times and there's no need to maintain a huge tape library for each bus. The technology has also provided some additional perks of easier searching, wireless access and other onboard data capture. Most school bus recording systems will use cameras that have built in microphones and will record audio. However, there are many juridictions where audio cannot or is not recorded. Decoy vs. Live Systems The bottom line for many school districts is that many are restricted on their passenger safety initiatives because budgets are being eaten up by growing costs of maintaining a school bus fleet. Not the least of which is fuel costs. It's for this reason that many SD's look at a couple of options for deploying camera systems on their buses. Some bus managers have identified that some routes are chronically experiencing on-board incidents. In this situation they may partially outfit those routes with equipment and regularly review video to target frequent offenders. These systems will be complete and functional and run all the time. Partial fleet deployment is one way that TDs can have some flexibility in security budget. It also allows them to deploy the equipment over a period of time. They may look at installaions of 20% of the fleet per year over 5 years to completion. Other organizations like to have the appearance of full fleet installations but will in actuality only have a few 'live systems' with the balance acting as decoys. Decoy systems look like they are operational but do not have a recorder in operation. This provides the manager with the ability to move recording devices from bus to bus without the students being aware of whether it is live or not. Additional accessories like blinking LED lights and window films with camera profiles help to create the illusion. The catch is that if something does happen on a bus without the recorder there is an expectation that the cameras will have captured it. This expectation is usually tested by the parents. For the richer school districts or smaller fleets complete deployment with live systems is manageable and usually done. Installing equipment in all the buses and keeping a few spares in the shop for the odd breakdown. What's involved with the installation? Installing a recording system requires a few tools, some knowledge of onboard wiring and some time for the first installation. Typically a shop mechanic is the best choice to install such a system. For those school districts that don't have the luxury of their own shop you can rely on your trusted school bus dealer for help. If you are purchasing a system built for school bus recording it will usually have the following components... a) Main wiring harness that will connect to onboard power source and trigger wiring for event indictators and secondary camera triggering. b) Camera head and mounting bracket c) Security enclosure for recorder (VCR or digital) Note: Camcorder systems usually have security enclosure only for the camcorder and there is no additional camera head for installation. Once you have done the inventory check for all parts you mount the security enclosure for the recorder. The main thing here is to keep it off the floor and protect from moisture, dust and kids boots. Many districts undermount the enclosure to the bottom of the bench seat directly behind the driver. Because of the durability of newer systems you can also 'toaster mount' the unit (vertically) near the driver's console or partition. Next is to 'pull wire' and connect for power, event indicator circuits and camera wiring. Finally, mounting of the camera and connecting is done. Keeping in mind to make your wiring and camera tamper resistant. It's also helpful to have a handheld LCD monitor to test aim the camera. For most standard length school buses cameras with a 8mm lens will provide a good field of view of the whole bus. Some TD's are particular about seeing the first few rows of the bus and for them a 6mm lens will do the trick. If you need to shave a couple of dollars off the equipment costs you may wish to consider black and white cameras. The differential between color and black and white cameras can vary from $75 to $200. Some manufacturers throw the color in for free. If you have purchased some additional accessories such as an extra microphone or infra-red illuminators you can install these last. Infra-red illuminators will allow your black and white cameras to record when there is no visible light. Analog vs. Digital Recording Systems Camcorder systems for the most part are being phased out. This is mainly because of the high cost to maintain. Camcorders have many moving parts and tend to shake apart after a couple of years. Also, the main manufacturers, Sony, Panasonic and Canon continue to design for the consumer market and add features and prices that don't fit the school bus market. Most school districts elect to use VCRs systems because of low costs and increased recording time. Camcorder systems are still available but require a little time to search out for suppliers. The main debate points for migrating from analog (VCR) to digital systems have been the following ... - digital systems have more recording time and will allow recording of bus routes for two or more weeks whereas tape systems at best give you nine hours and then you need to rewind or replace tape. - digital systems use solid state circuitry and have less moving parts which means less repair and maintenance related to constant vibration and shock. - TD's are having a hard time budgeting for a tape infrastructure that requires staffing and storage of VCR tapes. Imagine if you had a fleet of 400 buses and the board wanted you to store 21 days of tapes!?!?! You could rename your department to 'Blockbuster Video'. - digital systems are provide some other features such as wireless access, increase searching capabilities, geo-fencing, GPS and on-board networking or data collection. On the other side of the debate is the increased cost to move to digital. Sometime two to three times the costs of a VCR system. With some TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) analysis you could justify the increase as a minimum 5 year equipment investment. However, most manufacturers only give you a one year warranty on the recorder and 3 years on the camera heads. Hmmm. There is no doubt that the digital system will outlast the analog system. However, many purchasers are wondering if Moore's law will apply to this equipment and they should wait before the buy. Moore's law states that every 18 months computers will be twice as fast or twice as cheap. The best test of this is to query manufacturers on their hard drive costs for digital video recording systems and see if there has been any drop in price over the last two years. The main issues to watch for with mobile digital video equipment is whether the system is designed for rugged mobile use and is engineered for the constant vibration and shock. Most digital video recorders are not designed for school bus application and results in loss of information because of hard drive arm skip. How much does it costs for this equipment? Of course, prices will vary from vendor to vendor and dealer to dealer. Some school bus dealers and contractors have better volume pricing from the factory than others. You'll also find that large fleet bid pricing will get you the best prices. Many manufacturers will either bid direct or will have their representative/dealer bid for them. Because of increased competition for market share more manufacturers are bidding direct. If there is a requirement for installation and then they will work with a local partner/dealer or use field staff. Camcorder and VCR systems will range from $525 to $1095 installed. Note camcorder pricing includes camera. To install camcorder box only will be less than $100. Most buyers elect to install new VCR systems unless they already have camcorders and are trying to extend the life of the systems or outfit fleet expansion. Digital systems will range from $1195 to $1995 installed for a single channel system and prices will vary depending upon hard drive size. Standard HD size is 40 Gigabytes and can be expanded up to 120 GBs. Mobile digital video surveillance systems may include hard drive but may or may not include playback software or viewing station for download and playback of digital video. You'll also find that prices go up for systems with 2 or more cameras recording simultaneously. List of Current Equipment Suppliers Here's a list of manufacturers that you can contact for more specific information about their school bus systems. Most will make available information kits, video samples, specifications and pre-sale consultations. Many will also make available free installation of demonstration equipment for an evaluation trial period. There's nothing better than 'try before you buy'. This is especially important on the newer digital video systems. An evaluation allows you to check for 'ease-of-use', download and processing speeds, and technical support. As one TD put it to me..."I'd like to see if there are some smart and responsive people attached to your product".

I hope that this information is helpful and helps you weigh all the information available on this equipment. I have greatly enjoy my experience being involved with the pupil transportation industry and relish the friendships across the country in this industy. It's one of the few industries where there is still a tightly knit community.

If there is any information that I have missed in this article please go ahead and post it below.

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