Buses roll with perfect score from State Police

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First Student Transportation Director Sue Dieter at the bus service garage on S. Maumee Street. Photo by Deane Erts.

Most family minivans would flunk the test that the Michigan State Police (MSP) put every public school bus through before they are approved to transport children on the first day of school. The checklist has more than 200 items and it covers everything from brakes to upholstery.

Now, imagine if you had to pass that scrutiny 26 times. That’s the number of buses in Tecumseh Public Schools bus fleet, which was just awarded its fourth consecutive 100 percent for the fall inspection. TPS Supt. Mike McAran announced the achievement at Monday evening’s meeting of the school board and noted that it is a feat that few districts can match.

The MSP does an exhaustive inspection of all the mechanical and electrical systems of every public school bus in the state for the safety of students. Tecumseh’s fleet is under the management of First Student Transportation and the buses are owned and maintained by First Student, a private transportation service. The buses operate out of the South Maumee Street terminal and cover hundreds of miles each school day under the direction of Sue Dieter, who coordinates the departures and arrivals and oversees the routing to make the most of the 30 drivers and the ever-increasingly expensive fuel reserves.

Dieter said that the succession of perfect inspections is due mostly to the diligence of fleet mechanic Tim Scheffler. “Tim is meticulous about the entire fleet,” Dieter said. “Our continuous high rating is due to his one-man show in the bus garage.”

To continue the family minivan analogy one step further, consider if the State Police were inspecting your 11-year-old minivan for the smallest infraction. Some of the buses in the Tecumseh fleet are of that vintage. Dieter said that First Student does not allow buses to continue in service past that age, but there are several buses that old still in service and running perfectly, as verified by the inspectors.

An inspection of a single bus can take anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. The State Police have three grades that they may assign to a particular public transportation vehicle: a red flag, a yellow flag, or a simple “pass.” The red flag means that the bus cannot be used until the condition that prompted the “fail” is repaired, and the vehicle is re-inspected. A yellow flag is for lesser infractions, and the vehicle may be used. A yellow flag may be caused by anything from a chipped windshield to a small tear in a seat. A vehicle may be used if yellow flagged, but the MSP may show up at anytime for re-inspection, and if the offending defect has not been repaired, the police can sideline it.

Dieter said the Tecumseh fleet maintenance is complicated by the fact that three different manufacturers of buses are in the fleet mix: International, Thomas, and Bluebird. “It makes ordering parts harder, and it requires an extensive mechanical knowledge,” she said. “It would be a lot easier on Tim if they were all the same make, but he knows them all, inside and out anyway, so it doesn’t really bother him.”

Dieter said that she is familiar with school districts that are not as fortunate as TPS, either in the age and quality of the bus fleet or in the expertise of the mechanical maintenance staff. “I have known some districts that privatized their fleets and had half of the fleet red flagged,” she said. “In some districts, money has become so tight that they cannibalize one bus to fix another. We don’t do that. First Student would not allow it and neither would Tim.”

In instances where a school district is unable to put enough vehicles on the road to pick up students in time for school, it is not uncommon to lease one or more buses from a neighboring district. Dieter said that Tecumseh First Student has often supplied districts that have found themselves short a bus or two for one reason or another.

Modern technology has eased the mechanical diagnostic drudgery somewhat. It is now possible to hook a vehicle up to a computer and allow it to run system checks to find problems in seconds. “The computer diagnostics are a terrific tool,” said Dieter, “but there is really no substitute for someone like Tim, who can hear a bus running and know there is a problem, or a problem coming, and fix it right away.”




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