REI Helps a Texas ISD Overcome Fleet Management Hurdles With SaaS

ARMOR Software Suite – a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution by REI® – aims to help school districts reduce the time transportation directors spend on bus fleet operations and surveillance. Among its capabilities, ARMOR provides vehicle tracking, contact tracing, automated vehicle health checks, automated video downloads, and driver performance reports. 

“ARMOR makes transportation directors’ lives easier,” said Drew Batten, director of sales for REI. “It is a timesaver, allowing them to be more productive, efficient, and effective in the safety of the children they transport every day.” 

An All-In-One Solution 

REI is a leading provider and innovator for mobile video surveillance and fleet management software solutions in the school bus industry as well as the motorcoach, transit, and OEM markets. With helpful solutions for day-to-day operations, REI’s overriding goals are to improve safety on buses, help school districts maximize efficiency, and simplify the workdays of those involved.    

REI’s products for pupil transportation include stop-arm camera systems, DVRs, a 3D 360° Surround View Camera System, and the company’s popular solution – ARMOR™ Software Suite.  

“ARMOR allows our users to do so much,” said Taylor Moore, ARMOR specialist and sales consultant for REI. “It’s essentially a fleet management software that easily maintains automated video retrieval, health diagnostics of both your surveillance systems and your engine diagnostics, active or passive GPS, and the ability to view live. ARMOR is an efficiency-driven software designed to be flexible for all our users, simplifying their experience, and making their operations significantly more efficient.” 

Hardware Integration 

Contributing to ARMOR’s flexibility and functionality in the various transportation markets is the ease with which REI hardware solutions – whether its cameras, monitors, or back-up systems – integrate with REI software. 

“How REI is able to combine all these hardware elements into our cloud-based ARMOR Software Suite is really what is separating REI from the rest of the industry,” added Batten. “The list of new opportunities continues to get larger as software and software technology become more prevalent in the world.”    

Furthermore, thanks to ARMOR’s video surveillance capabilities – a cornerstone of REI’s core capabilities – administrators can request, view, and download incident videos. 

ARMOR in Action – Santa Fe ISD 

Operating out of Santa Fe, Texas, near Houston, Santa Fe Independent School District (ISD) has 48 buses running on 31 routes. The district has approximately 4,800 students, with the transportation department carrying one-fourth to one-half of those students each day. 

Mark McKinney

When Mark McKinney, transportation director of Santa Fe ISD, arrived as an assistant director in 2015, he pushed hard for the district to adopt high-tech cameras with continuous recording capabilities. “When I first got into school transportation in another district, we still had one or two that were video cameras in a box. A camcorder in a box with a mirror. The mirrors looked straight back from a bulkhead. Maybe they were working, maybe they weren’t,” he said.    

“I spoke with REI at a trade show and was shown a video from a bus that was on fire, and the system kept recording for roughly 10 minutes after the fire broke out. I said, ‘Let’s look at this.’ Based on our experience in the past, we go out and pull a hard drive and it can be anyone’s guess as to whether it’s going to be working or not,” McKinney recalled.   

“My first experience after installing an REI system was, we had a kid who smeared peanut butter and jelly on the seat and floor,” he continued. “We pulled up the video footage and, not only could we see him eating and smearing it on the seat, but the image was also clear enough I could tell it was grape jelly.”

That first DVR unit is still operational and currently in use on a white-fleet vehicle in the district. 

“All our units are Wi-Fi connected and Wi-Fi enabled now. We’ve never had a DVR fail since we switched to REI, and our fleet is 100 percent REI-equipped today,” added McKinney.  

Automated Video Downloads  

In addition to ARMOR’s surveillance capabilities, Santa Fe ISD uses the system for automatic speeding notifications, and driver and vehicle data. McKinney said that the district’s drivers appreciate the ease by which administration and the transportation department can pull files. 

“The speed and convenience of information delivery is very beneficial,” he noted. “During any event, the driver can hit a panic button and ARMOR automatically downloads five minutes of video before and after the button push. We just play the video footage once we know an incident has occurred.”  

Easy Video Sharing  

Further enhancing the timeliness and collaboration of the district’s event review process is ARMOR’s share feature. The feature allows users to email a secure, password-protected hyperlink to others. 

“The good thing about it is file sharing, being able to send that email link to drivers. I don’t have to teach them how to use ARMOR,” McKinney said. “All they have to do is click on the link, hit the play button and skip around.”

“The convenience of being able to email that video using a link saves me a tremendous amount of time – and the mechanics don’t have to pull hard drives,” he continued. “To be able to send it, and the fact that it’s secure is a big plus.”

This speed and convenience, McKinney commented, allows the Santa Fe ISD transportation department to focus more time on the district’s central task of safely transporting kids to and from school. 

Camera Integration 

“We use a lot of cameras on our buses. The new ones will come equipped with 15 cameras each: four that are on a surround view channel, and 11 other channel views. We’re using four additional external cameras because we like the long view. It helps us in accident investigations,” explained McKinney. “Previously, we would be trying to determine from a shadow or a driver reaction what was about to happen. So, we’ve added long-view cameras for exterior views. In fact, on special needs buses, we have a fifth external camera that looks backward toward the wheelchair lift.” 

He mentioned, “We have a lot of rural roads, so durable equipment is a must. The surround-view is not only held up by the four very-durable cameras, but it also allows us to see kids standing all the way behind the bus, next to the rear bumper.” 

The district has its own Wi-Fi network dedicated to ARMOR. Videos begin downloading as soon as buses enter the Wi-Fi-enabled lot. Santa Fe ISD has not yet upgraded ARMOR to a live-feed or cloud-based platform, because officials are pleased with how the system is currently operating for their organization. 

Ease of Use

McKinney continued, “The people who access ARMOR are our office personnel. We don’t have to do a lot of training. It’s pretty simple. Most of the time they look over my shoulder and I show them how to do it and they’re off and running.” 

ARMOR’s ease of use extends to those outside the district office.

“Even our district police department finds it easy,” McKinney said. “They don’t call me and ask, ‘how do you make this thing work?’ So, that’s a big plus for me in that I don’t get caught up in spending a lot of time having to train someone on the other end how to play a file.”  

Taylor Moore expounded, “Mark’s answer is a true testament to how easy the software is to use. REI has a dedicated team that helps those who are new to using the system, whether they’re onboarding as a new district or new to a position. this team dedicates a portion of its schedule to training and the onboarding experience.”  

Saving Time 

The district’s operational efficiencies have significantly increased thanks to ARMOR. In the past, McKinney would need to pull video, wait for a mechanic to retrieve the hard drive, and spend time combing through footage. 

“Now, my day is as long as it needs to be,” he said. “If a driver tells me that they hit the panic button, I can go and find the video – usually already downloaded – very easily. Even if they don’t know exactly when the incident occurred, I can use the system’s playback function to quickly find the footage I need, and then pull the full video. It’s very efficient because it doesn’t require us to pull a hard drive and I don’t have to wait until that DVR is live on the lot to set up a download.”   

“It really saves us so much time, and in many ways makes our buses even safer,” McKinney stated. “Our office staff, our drivers, and even our kids know it’s always recording. They know we’ll have video of every incident.”

Diagnostic and Stop-Arm Capabilities

Contributing further to ARMOR’s safety and efficiency benefits are its diagnostic notifications and reporting, along with stop-arm camera enforcement capabilities. 

“One of the beautiful aspects of ARMOR is it shows a screen telling me what’s working and what’s not,” McKinney explained. “It’ll tell me if there’s a hard drive that’s not operational. We also have a stop-arm camera enforcement program in our district. REI camera systems are currently installed in 15 of our buses that are part of that Verra Mobility Stop-Arm Camera Enforcement Program, and those images are extremely clear for license plate reading to curb stop-arm violations. Over two years, we have seen monthly violations cut by 56 percent.”

“There is a financial benefit to it,” McKinney added. “Funds from violations are largely untouched by our department and are available for security and safety upgrades in our district.”

The REI Difference 

REI sets itself apart with its 24/7, 365-day support line. Calling the line any day of the week, even holidays, results in a live conversation with an in-house representative. REI’s experts can help districts solve technical issues, not only with software, but also hardware troubleshooting. 

“They’re so responsive,” McKinney said. “Even after hours, I’ve called and spoken to an actual person. I’ve never had an issue that we weren’t able to resolve.” 

“Many of our technicians have more than 30 years of experience, and that knowledge base really makes REI unique,” said Kim Struble, director of customer support at REI. “This experience enables us to efficiently troubleshoot new and old technology alike.”  

Utilizing Customer Feedback 

In addition to the support provided by round-the-clock, knowledgeable personnel, REI retains an in-house staff of more than 30 engineers with expertise in software, hardware, firmware, and mechanical development. The team plays a critical role in the evolution of REI products. Batten explained, “A lot of the solutions REI designs and builds come from individuals like Mark, transportation directors, and customers of ours. We listen to their feedback and pain points, and devise solution-based builds and enhancements supporting them.”  

ARMOR is a prime example of the evolutionary pattern.

“Its inception as a premises-based, server-hosted software service is now gravitating toward strictly cloud-based options,” Batten continued. “This evolution is really in tandem with feedback customers have given us and people wanting to conduct their operations conveniently and wirelessly in the cloud.”

Working in the Cloud 

When software like ARMOR is installed on-premises at districts like Santa Fe ISD, it requires additional levels of technical support from the district – including server allocation and distribution of access points. With ARMOR evolving into a cloud-based solution, the REI customer support team works hard to test and ensure that all DVRs are recording and reporting data, so when ARMOR arrives at the district, it is cellular-ready and functional upon installation.  

“For our cloud customers, a new DVR will be cellular-ready, installed in one day, and reporting back to ARMOR within that same day,” Moore said. “It’s a really smooth and easy transition.” 

Though cloud computing has existed for decades, it has more recently become prominent among software services tailored for bus transportation. Data, once stored on secured, in-house servers, now lives on the web, eliminating the need for additional IT resources. REI manages customers’ ARMOR servers at its headquarters. This setup allows for more efficient access, as well as cost and operational savings. 

Automated Notifications 

With the evolution of ARMOR, districts no longer need to patch or continuously maintain their own servers. REI updates school district platforms immediately and seamlessly, then informs districts via notifications about the latest releases.      

“Managers really love all of the notification options within ARMOR – those related to server updates as well as those involving detected events,” Struble explained. “It’s definitely a much better experience and an easily configurable system. For example, if a driver is suspected of continuous speeding, an administrator can configure an automatic notification when a speeding event occurs. This allows administration to do mentoring, coaching, and training for their drivers and do so much faster than having to search their videos to find the event.”  

The difference is night-and-day as compared to districts that must comb through hours of video footage to identify a speeding driver. 

The Future is Integration 

In looking to the future of ARMOR, REI is focused on research and development as well as open application program interface (API) opportunities. 

ARMOR’s open API allows districts and contractors to adjust the system’s application to suit their unique needs and provides amazing opportunities for third-party vendor integration. This level of interoperability allows ARMOR to actually “talk” to other systems. 

“We believe that its open API will really help ARMOR continue to grow and serve our customers,” Moore concluded. “As we integrate with other vendors and systems, those beneficial partnerships will improve our own capabilities and increase the options we can provide to our customers.”