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One of the new upgrades this fall to DODDS Pacific school buses in Japan and Okinawa includes a small data screen on the dashboard that bus drivers can use to relay messages to school transportation officials in the event of an emergency. Buses in South Korea already have the equipment.

One of the new upgrades this fall to DODDS Pacific school buses in Japan and Okinawa includes a small data screen on the dashboard that bus drivers can use to relay messages to school transportation officials in the event of an emergency. Buses in South Korea already have the equipment. (Courtesy of DODDS Pacific)

A terrorist hijacks a bus full of military kids en route to a sporting event in Tokyo.

The bus driver triggers a remote duress alarm, and within seconds Department of Defense Dependents Schools Pacific officials know which street the bus is traveling — and its direction and speed — and they alert law enforcement.

When 24,000 DODDS-Pacific students in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea start school later this month, they’ll be riding school buses beefed up with technology, including onboard digital cameras and a Global Positioning System (GPS).

“We’re utilizing this technology to do the best that we can to ensure the safety of our students riding the buses,” said Jack Martin, chief of DODDS-Pacific transportation division.

It’s also about “accountability — who’s on the bus — and to be able to respond in an emergency situation and assist local military or national police in the event of an incident or an accident,” Martin said.

DODDS-Pacific awarded contracts this summer to Critel Inc. of Seoul to install the systems, school officials said.

The on-bus cameras for 336 buses in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea cost $1.1 million, Martin said; the vehicle tracking system for 187 buses in Japan and on Okinawa cost $760,000.

“We’re into it full bore,” Martin said. “Our goal is to have this installed before school starts.”

The upgrades in mainland Japan and Okinawa include GPS to track the location of DODDS buses and passengers. South Korea’s DODDS buses have been using the system since 2001.

GPS will enable transportation specialists to track the speed and direction of buses on a detailed electronic map.

A software program installed at student transportation field offices will allow officials to link up and zoom into a bus’ route, Martin said.

“It allows us to track the bus if it veers and goes outside the route area,” he said.

The technology also can be used for “quality-assurance purposes,” Martin said, recording the time a bus takes to finish its assigned route, for example.

Part of the upgrades is a duress alarm that bus drivers or security attendants can activate remotely, notifying the transportation office personnel of an emergency.

Bus drivers also will be able to communicate by cell phone or e-mail via a mobile data terminal — a mini-screen on the dashboard.

A driver will be able to press bilingual, preprogrammed messages on the menu such as: “I’m involved in an accident. No injuries,” Martin said.

While GPS can locate the buses, passengers will be tracked through wireless electronic scanning technology.

Starting in January, DODDS students in Japan and Okinawa will be issued new bus passes embedded with a digital identification code that will be scanned each time they board or exit the bus.

Students in South Korea already have the pass.

“If a parent calls up and says a student never came home from school, we’ll be able verify whether the kid was even on the bus,” Martin said.

To reduce disciplinary problems and vandalism, all buses in Japan, South Korea and Okinawa will be equipped with four digital cameras that record in color.

Buses previously had cameras, but they utilized unreliable 8-mm videotape; the images often were fuzzy, the sounds inaudible, and the camera didn’t capture everything inside the bus, Martin said.

The new cameras will record up to five days of data before re-recording.

“It’s not real time, where you can sit and watch the bus go down the road,” Martin said.

GPS and the cameras won’t be installed on Defense Department buses on Guam this fall, “but I anticipate it will be in the future,” Martin said.

DODDS-Pacific assumed administration of Guam DOD schools on July 1.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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