Starting next month, brand new yellow buses will be pulling up to every Wichita school bus stop.
First Student, the largest bus company in the nation, is starting its contract with Wichita schools by bringing in a fleet of 624 new vehicles and drivers excited to operate them.
"It's overwhelming to look out on the lot — look at the brand new buses," Teresa Unger, a bus-driver trainer, said Wednesday at the company's 4141 N. Seneca site.
The features on the new vehicles include a second stop sign that extends from the rear of the bus, heavy-duty tread on steps and an electronic checklist that sends maintenance requests instantly.
But the features on the new buses aren't just for looks. Automated bus checks and
satellite tracking will make the ride to and from school safer for students, said Steve Roessler, region vice president for First Student.
"A bus is 10 to 12 times safer than walking or driving your own car," and First Student is trying to make it even safer for students, he said.
The Wichita district decided to hire First Student in January, ending its 14 years with Durham School Services, the second-largest bus transportation provider in the nation.
Although both companies proposed an annual cost of $20.3 million, district officials said First Student had greater appeal because of its use of technology for safety and bus tracking.
Besides buses of all sizes, the First Student fleet has three coach buses for out-of-town trips and 16 minivans to transport homeless students, alleviating the need for expensive taxis.
Half the new vehicles were made by Collins Bus Corp. in Hutchinson, and the rest come from a company in Tulsa, Roessler said.
First Student's most touted safety feature is its child check to avoid leaving students on the bus.
When the driver turns the bus on in the morning, it activates the system. Once the driver returns to the bus barn in the evening and turns the vehicle off, the driver hears a beep indicating the need to check the length of the bus.
"We start a search for children left and make sure we take our time," Brian Brunt, First Student senior safety manager, said as he walked to the back of the bus.
To deactivate the system, the driver must press a red button in the back of the bus. If the system isn't deactivated, the bus starts blaring an alarm and flashing all its lights.
Children falling asleep on the bus is a common problem, but Roessler said the automated check helps keep the occurrences low.
First Student also uses GPS to track its buses at all times, so dispatch can be proactive in spotting problems on routes, such as a breakdown or buses running late, Roessler said.
He said the tracking system can be useful in conflict-resolution because it can verify claims by parents or bus drivers about where and when the bus stops.
Other safety features include:
* An arm on the front bumper of the bus that extends when the bus is loading or unloading to prevent students from crossing in the driver's blind spot
* Two digital video cameras
* A second stop-sign arm in the back of longer buses so drivers can more easily recognize the bus picking up or dropping off students
* Thick tread on the bus steps to prevent students from slipping
* A white roof to keep the buses cooler in the heat by reflecting light off the top
* A remote-like electronic checklist that forces the driver to get out of the bus and check in at certain places on the bus to verify she really did see all parts of the bus before starting or ending the day.
Even with automated systems, children aren't safe without a good driver.
First Student required all bus drivers to apply for a job, even if they had worked for Durham.
About 350 of 600 Durham drivers have received jobs with First Student, Roessler said.
Unger, the driver trainer, said the $12 an hour wages and benefits remained about the same in the company changeover. She said switching to First Student has been a "very pleasant experience," as was working with Durham.
"What we're offered with First Student is a positive chance to bring some new attitudes to the Wichita area," Unger said.
About 425 drivers are fully trained, and Roessler said the bus company is still hiring to meet its need of 600 drivers.
"We have failed drivers," he said, adding there were about 1,000 applicants so far. "Background checks have knocked out a bunch of them."
Besides passing a driving test, Roessler said drivers must pass a vehicle records check and a national criminal background check done through First Student's corporate office in Cincinnati.
The Wichita district then runs drivers' names through its own background check, which includes KBI and FBI records.
First Student has been on a two-year license probation in Ohio for background check problems in 2007 that closed Columbus schools for one day. Corporate leaders have said they improved the criminal background checks since.
Plus, in Wichita, the district's policy provides a double check, Roessler said.
The drivers who have passed all the tests can't wait to get the new buses rolling.
"Everyone is ready to start the school year right now," Unger said.