Hall Schools will convert all its bus radios to digital and expand communications coverage to 99 percent of the county by Christmas.
It’s the latest effort by school officials to improve safety protocols and emergency preparedness in light of a deadly school shooting in Florida earlier this year.
Superintendent Will Schofield said upgrading the bus radio network had recently become the No. 1 priority for officials.
During the last several months, Hall County Schools have poured countless personnel hours and budgeted about $700,000 to improve safety on school campuses.
For example, the school district is expanding a silent alarm network to all schools, adding new security monitors across campuses, and equipping resource officers with new stun guns.
And earlier this summer, Hall County Schools resource officers, teachers, staff and administrators participated in an educational workshop aimed at helping educators and law enforcement better understand, identify and respond to students with mental illness and behavioral problems.
Clay Hobbs, director of transportation, said the current analog radios reach only 80 to 85 percent of the county, according to a topographical study, and communication can be “fuzzy” with the dated system.
“It wasn’t as clear as … you’d want it to be” if buses were headed toward a school where an emergency lockdown was in place, for example, Hobbs said. “We felt like we needed to try our best to improve that.”
Schofield said the analog radios utilize a VHF signal, which “almost no one uses anymore,” with two antennas stationed at Wauka Mountain Elementary in Gainesville and along Skitts Mountain in North Hall.
The Skitts Mountain antenna will be taken down during the conversion and a new antenna will be installed at C.W. Davis Middle in Flowery Branch.
“We always knew we had some pockets” in the county without radio coverage, Schofield said, but officials were until recently unaware of the extent. “That just isn’t good enough …”
Moreover, some of the radios are so outdated that they cannot be updated, Schofield said.
Officials said they would spend about $184,000 to convert all bus radio communications to digital. Hall County has approximately 400 school buses in its fleet.
School bus drivers are partially exempt from Georgia’s new “hands-free” driving law. They can use a wireless two-way radio while in motion to connect with school and public safety officials, but are prohibited from using radios when passengers are loading and unloading the bus.
The new radios will have roaming technology, allowing buses to pick up the strongest possible signal from either of the two antenna stations depending on their current location.
“This is pretty much the best scenario,” Hobbs said. “There are many, many advantages.”