Until about a year ago, the Siouxland Regional Transit System (SRTS) rented space on a local 800 MHz trunking system and used a variety of radio makes/models to manage communications between dispatchers and bus drivers. However, this system was incurring roughly $35,000 a year for radios, installation, repairs and tower rent. Additionally, fifty bus radios and six dispatcher units would soon reach end of life and require a large capital outlay to replace. As a public transit system primarily serving rural communities, this was becoming a backbreaking expense. While serving over 200 thousand residents in seven counties around Northwest Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska, in addition to providing specialized services for those with disabilities, low income and the elderly, it was evident the radio system was causing more harm than good. Beyond the exorbitant annual cost, drivers were forced to handle radios during transport, and coverage was often unreliable.
Curt Miller, Transit Director for SRTS, identified the issues and began crafting a multi-phase solution. First, he deployed Samsung tablets to every driver and Samsung Galaxy cellphones to dispatch personnel. SRTS had previously implemented Automated Business Solution’s PTMS dispatch software, which now runs on bus tablets over the Verizon network. Next, Miller researched mobile applications that would communicate with all devices. The Zello for Work app was the only program that met all his criteria—Providing the ability to program drivers into groups, allowing dispatchers to talk to drivers one county at a time rather than all at once, and maintaining a history of all calls. In the end, Miller subscribed to Zello for all 60 employees.
The only glitch in the system was that tablet audio wasn’t loud enough for drivers to hear and needed a remote mic to amplify sound. After a false start with a wired version from another manufacturer, Miller discovered Pryme while researching heavy duty wireless Bluetooth speaker microphones typically found in the public safety space.
“One of the biggest benefits of Pryme’s BTH-600 ZU was that drivers could clip the mic to lapels and use the push-to-talk feature while in motion without ever having to touch the tablet,” said Miller. “Plus, drivers could now step outside the bus to assist passengers and still communicate, whereas before they missed transmissions.”
The fact that Pryme’s wireless Bluetooth Mic with PTT was specifically designed to support mobile apps like Zello—which most others weren’t, yet Pryme’s pricing was comparable—sealed Miller’s decision to convert all 60 drivers. The total package, including dispatcher smart phones, tablets installed on stands in buses and running the dispatch software with Zello in the background, cost over 70% less per annum than SRTS’s previous system—And coverage was as good or better, even in the most rural areas.
The last phase in Miller’s plan is improving bandwidth to allow live streaming from the video camera/DVR systems on board all buses. Miller is currently in the process of testing Cradlepoint’s in-vehicle IBR 1100 ruggedized router units and the results thus far have been resoundingly successful. Live video can be watched with sound from base desktops, plus recorded video is automatically downloadable for review in the event of an incident. Moreover, SRTS will be able to switch the tablets from Verizon’s Data Service to wireless internet via Cradlepoint instead. Yet another time and money-saving strategy that also upgrades safety measures. Not to mention a much stronger signal and the added benefit of free Wi-Fi for passengers.
SRTS maintains transportation contracts with several entities in both larger communities and rural areas, including Native American Childcare Services in Sioux City, as well as many other school systems and city agencies. Last year alone, SRTS provided about 180,000 rides and traveled over a million miles. Miller’s communications system is so ahead of the game, it was recently awarded the Innovative Solutions Award by Metro Magazine. Better still, rural transit systems in many of the other 99 counties in Iowa have reached out to Miller for information, which prompted him to present a tablet demonstration at the Iowa Public Transit Association Technology Roundtable last Spring.
Miller said, “I believe in sharing our success story so that others may benefit from what we’ve learned and achieved. That’s what community is all about.”