Digital radio keeps large, hilly district in touch

Nestled in the heart of the Ozarks of Missouri, the Dallas County R-I School District offers a wide array of educational opportunities to nearly 1,800 students attending its five K-12 schools. Although the Ozark Mountain region represents some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, the steep terrain, tree-covered hilltops and large expanse of this rural county made busing the children to and from school both necessary and challenging. With 543 square miles in the county, the school district’s 40 buses travel over 2,300 miles per day, relying on analog two-way radios to communicate between the buses and the district transportation office when out on the routes. However, that solution was not optimal.

Hills, valleys, trees and distance create serious coverage gaps
“Because of all the hills and valleys, there were huge portions of our service area where the bus drivers were unable to contact us,” says Dr. Jon Turner, Assistant Superintendent, Dallas County School District. “In certain locations of the county where communications were especially difficult, they would have to stop the bus on top of a hill where they could get a signal in order to reach the central office.”

Even when drivers were able to get through, audio quality was very poor and they were forced to repeat themselves multiple times in order to be understood. This created more radio traffic, which tied up the channel, resulted in frequent busies and frustrated both drivers and district staff. Turner decided it was time to look for a more reliable communications solution and contacted John Rayfield, Jr. from Rayfield Communications, a local Motorola channel partner, to discuss options. The district elected to go with MOTOTRBO digital two-way radios with IP Site Connect. Migrating to the new system has resulted in nearly 100% district-wide coverage, along with improved audio capability.

Improved coverage, audio
“The thing we noticed right away was the unbelievable quality of the sound,” says Turner. “We not only were able to understand what people were saying, it cleared up our radio traffic because we no longer had to repeat everything multiple times.”

Prior to the new communications system, if a bus would break down in a part of the county where coverage was unavailable, bus drivers would often have to flag down someone passing by on the road to ask if they could call the transportation office to let them know about the situation. With the solution in place, bus drivers now have access to nearly 100% coverage wherever they are within the district.

“We were very blessed that we never had an accident or serious situation,” says Turner. “But it gives you a great feeling of comfort with these new radios that within every portion of our service area, we now have the capability to communicate with our main locations in Buffalo.”

Private communications prevent eavesdropping
As any administrator knows, small events can get blown out of proportion when casual listeners don’t have all the facts. On October 31, 2008, lightning struck a tree where several students were standing, leaving one with minor injuries. When school administrators and security officers used the old analog radios to coordinate response, communications were also inadvertently broadcast out to scanners.

“So many people tried to call the school, the phone system shut down,” says Turner. “So they began showing up at the campus wanting information. We have an obligation to care for the kids and communicate first with the parents but the way the information got out deterred our response and impacted our ability to efficiently manage the situation.”

The MOTOTRBO digital radios have built-in scrambling capability to block unauthorized access and enable private communications.

Justifying the expense when budgets are stretched
With ever-tightening budgets, schools have to justify every expense carefully and make sure that the return is worth the investment. While the district had never faced a crisis in which unreliable communications risked the safety of its students, the potential was too great to ignore.

“If we were ever to have an emergency in the county, we needed the ability to communicate immediately with all of our schools, all of our buses, and not have to worry about the quality of the communications system,” says Turner. “When schools are making a sizeable investment, a marginal improvement may not justify the expense. The greatly extended coverage and significantly improved voice quality of the MOTOTRBO radios have undeniably proven that they were worth the investment.”

Next steps
Eventually, when budget allows them to make further investments, the Dallas County School District hopes to leverage the GPS-capable MOTOTRBO radios by deploying location tracking software to monitor the location of each of the school buses in real-time.