School bus pager tells kids to get going

School bus pager tells kids to get going

DeKalb County, Ga., finds a mountain blocks the signal for some families

By Donna Young

GCN Staff

There is a mountain blocking DeKalb County School District's latest school safety project'an 825-foot high, dome-shaped mass of exposed granite, to be exact.

Stone Mountain, located 16 miles east of downtown Atlanta, is wreaking havoc with a bus paging system the Georgia school district is using for the first time this fall.

BusPal from Smartel Labs of Washington, is a pager that alerts students when their school bus is within a two-mile radius or about five minutes from their home.

BusPal alerts students
when their school bus is five minutes from home.

DeKalb is the first school system to test the product districtwide.

Mary Stimmel, DeKalb District spokeswoman, said the transmitters for the paging system originally installed on the district's buses did not work correctly.

Antenna problem

Clinton Ancrum, Smartel's managing technical director, said the problem was caused by the placement and type of antennas used for the system.

'We discovered that a bus trying to transmit from the other side of Stone Mountain could not reach the pagers,' Ancrum said.

To solve the Stone Mountain problem, the paging system needed a different type of antenna than the ones developed by Smartel, Ancrum said.

So the company contracted with a Canadian manufacturer that customized a special computer intelligent radio antenna system that could handle the tricky transmission.

Smartel declined to name the Canadian antenna manufacturer or the type of technology used in the antennas, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

'We are glad we found a way to solve the problem now,' Ancrum said. 'We think the system will work correctly in school districts in areas like Colorado and other mountainous regions,' he said.

Maryland's Prince George's County used a few of the beepers as part of a pilot program for its special education students. It tested the product for two years.

Kenneth Savoid, transportation director for the county, said that although there are no mountains to interfere with the system's transmission in Prince George's County, a suburb of Washington, the school district did experience one building-related problem with the pagers.

'One student who lived in a high-rise building did not receive the page until the bus was out front of where he lived,' Savoid said. 'The Smartel people moved the pager from the child's room to a window near the front of the building and that seemed to solve the problem.'

Because DeKalb is the first district to fully test the system, Smartel did not charge the district for the transmitters, saving the district about $600,000 for installation costs, according to Ancrum.

Parents in DeKalb County will pay about $7 to $9 per month for the pager service. The five-inch pager alerts students by an interval of beeps: one beep means the bus is about five minutes away; by the time the pager beeps four times, it means the bus is nearly at the child's stop.

'The system was designed so kids don't have to stand out in the dark or cold weather waiting a long time for their bus,' Ancrum said. 'High school students love it because they know they have time to sleep longer or have time for breakfast.'

Ancrum said the custom-made pagers are about the same size as a small clock radio and generally plug directly into an outlet with a battery backup.

The bus radios have about a two-mile range and use an unlicensed Federal Communications Commission frequency in the 400-MHz band.

Calls parents

BusPal also alerts parents when a child's bus is on its return trip. In addition, parents can get an optional BusPal dialer that automatically contacts a preprogrammed phone or pager number when the bus reaches a child's bus stop at the end of the school day.

Smartel is designing a second-generation product that will automatically page or leave a message for a parent when a child enters the home after school if the parent cannot be reached directly by phone.

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