Sugar Land's school zone flasher system

Tommy Haynes
Director of Public Works
City of Sugar Land, Texas

The education of children is perhaps the most important profession in our society. Creating a classroom environment conducive to learning is a task that requires a team effort between educators, parents, students and a variety of other stakeholders, including transportation and public safety professionals who ensure that our children arrive to school safely each day.

In Sugar Land, in addition to police officers, the city's traffic operations personnel help ensure the safe transport of children, parents and teachers. City staff continually evaluate new tools and technology to assist in creating smooth, safe traffic flows within school zones. One such strategy is Sugar Land's implementation of an innovative technology called the Chronomax school zone flasher system, a software application that enhances safety and efficiency.

A faster, more efficient way of doing business
Using the school zone flasher/pager system, City of Sugar Land traffic operations personnel are able to download flasher instructions from a central location. This process eliminates many hours spent manually setting the equipment in the field, as has been the practice in the past. The new flasher system enables city staff members to program school zone flashers for an entire school year, including summer vacation, Thanksgiving, spring break, etc. In the past, city staff spent an entire day at least twice per year programming school flashers; now, one person spends approximately 30 minutes transmitting a year's worth of data for every school flasher in the city.

Unless an unexpected scheduling change occurs, there is no need to update the flashers daily or weekly. The system includes an override feature that enables special instructions to be sent to flashers in the event that students are released early from school. Prior to the new system, technicians reset as many flashers as possible to accommodate unexpected scheduling changes, such as those required during extreme weather events. The school zone flasher system facilitates school schedule changes in a timely manner.

The system was first implemented in 1999, and there have been some bonus features. One example is programming the system for early releases on several occasions, reducing the speed of traffic during times of the day when motorists do not expect the change.

How does the school flasher system work?
All programming is performed on an ordinary personal computer located in Sugar Land's traffic operations facility, and the scheduling data is transmitted to each school zone via an alphanumeric pager. A receiver located in the flasher control cabinet accepts the message and relays the information directly to the flashers. Once the flashers have received programming updates, technicians are able to ensure the data was sent properly through the use of a verification feature of the software.

The new system was easy to install on the city's existing flashers, and its menu-driven operation is easy to use as well. City staff compare the system's ease of use to that of a standard word processing program.

Conclusions
Implementation of the new system was the result of an internal review to identify new strategies for increasing efficiency and maximizing service. In examining best industry practices, city staff identified a local manufacturer that had developed a new approach to school zone flasher systems. Sugar Land partnered with the firm, Naztec, Inc., to become the first Texas city and one of the first in the nation to implement the Chronomax system.

The result of the new school zone flasher system is a major reduction in staff time spent in reprogramming flashers.

  • What used to consume a day's time twice per year is now accomplished in 30 minutes.
  • Sugar Land's school flasher system has virtually eliminated on-site reprogramming and increased the consistency of the flashers throughout the city.
  • When the clocks inside school zone flashers are set manually on-site, they are as accurate as a particular technician's wristwatch.
  • With programming performed centrally, all school zone flashers are synchronized to within seconds as opposed to a disparity of 10 to 15 minutes, as was the case in the past.
News of Sugar Land's success with the implementation of the school zone flasher system has traveled as far as Canada and all parts in between. Representatives from various cities and the Texas Department of Transportation have requested information about the state-of-the-art system, and some have even traveled to Sugar Land to view the system in operation. While the attention is flattering, the most important aspect is the project's positive impact on the City's efforts to create safe commutes for Sugar Land families.

Tommy Haynes can be reached at (281) 240-7412 or at thaynes@ci.sugar-land.tx.us.