Schools
 

City to repair transmitter that controls broken school zone lights

The city is working to repair a radio transmitter that controls school zone lights across town, which could address some of the widespread problems — particularly the lights that flash on evenings, weekends and holidays rather than weekdays when kids are in school.

All the school zone lights in New Orleans are controlled by a central computer system that communicates with them via radio. The transmitter is located on a state-owned radio tower in Lakeview, near the intersection of Pontchartrain Boulevard and Veterans Boulevard.

“The transmitter is temporarily down,” Landrieu spokesman Brad Howard said in an email this week. “A special cable is required to restore the transmitter to full operational capability. We anticipate the cable to be delivered and installed next week.”

In January, the Lens found that nearly half of the 147 school zone flashers in the city were malfunctioning. Some lights didn’t work at all on school mornings and afternoons; others flashed on weekends. Many lights displayed a low-battery warning. In some cases, the solar panels pointed the wrong way, away from the most direct sunlight.

None of those issues are the fault of the equipment itself, said Jeff Smith, a former municipal traffic engineer who now works for Temple Inc., the company that supplied the lights and solar panels. “The system, as it was designed, was a good one,” he said.

Smith said his company trained the city and a contractor, Jack B. Harper Electrical, on how to install and maintain the system.

Smith said the problems found by The Lens could be due to improper installation and lack of maintenance, though he’s not familiar with how the city now maintains them.

For example, school flashers aren’t supposed to be installed under trees or overpasses that block the solar panels. The Lens found cases of both.

The lights can be programmed remotely for up to 500 days at a time. The transmitter sends the schedule to the lights and keeps their internal clocks in sync.

“The individual school zone flashers have the ability to keep at least one week of programming internally,” Smith said. “If they don’t receive communication from the central [command] to change, then that week stays the same.”

That would explain why the lights on the 2300 block of Orleans Avenue, for example, were flashing on Mardi Gras.

The transmitter also syncs each light’s internal clock. Beacons that flash at odd hours — 10 p.m. on a Saturday, like one on South Claiborne Avenue near Eleanor McMain Secondary School — could have a problem with their internal clocks, Smith said.

The system can be programmed to accommodate citywide holidays and individual school schedules, Smith said. That’s an issue in New Orleans, where more than 40 organizations have different calendars for their public charter schools, in addition to the various private schools.

Howard said the Public Works Department reviews published school calendars “to determine which dates provide coverage for all schools in New Orleans.” The department will adjust those dates if school leaders request it, he said.

The Lens found some lights that were out and others that blinked quickly, indicating that their batteries were low. Told of the problems, the city originally blamed the solar panels, saying they couldn’t deal with long periods of cloudy weather.

However, some solar panels appear to have been installed incorrectly. They’re supposed to point south, where they’ll capture the most sunlight.

Smith said the the solar panels and batteries, manufactured by a Canadian company called Carmanah, are designed for the “worst possible situation.”

During cloudy stretches, the system is supposed to dim the lights to conserve battery power.

With new batteries, Smith said, “you could run a flasher up to 30 days without the battery being recharged.”

But if the batteries in New Orleans date to 2008, when the system was installed, it may be time to replace them.

City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Nadine Ramsey promised to take action after they learned of the widespread problems.

Ramsey said she would bring up the issue Tuesday at a City Council committee meeting overseeing Public Works. Cantrell plans to address the issue at a March 5 school transportation working group. She helped to form the group after six-year-old Shaud Wilson was killed by a car as he crossed Paris Avenue in Gentilly to get to his bus stop.

Howard said the city has repaired some of the lights. In January, as The Lens was surveying every school zone light in the city, 20 to 30 of them were fixed. That brought the percentage of malfunctioning lights from 60 percent to 45 percent.

“We are currently tracking about 12 flashers that are not operating correctly,” Howard said, “and are working to get those flashers repaired as soon as possible.”

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  • nickelndime

    The “city” will repair the transmitter (oh I am going to hate myself later in the morning for this, but I can’t stop myself now) that controls broken school zone lights. Do I need to go any further? I love you guys. You all are the “bees knees,” the “cat’s meow,” but if what is being printed about education in New Orleans depends solely on funding from NPR and Hechinger, then we is in a (expletive deleted) load of problems. 02/26/2015 2:12 AM

  • E.J.

    Well if it’s the transmitter, that transmitter has been “temporarily down” for nearly a decade.

  • nickelndime

    Hahaha – that’s funny, E.J. – “temporarily down for nearly a decade” At least that comment makes me laugh. Let’s make a list of all the “things” that the “city” says are “temporarily down,” but have been “non-functioning” for at least TEN YEARS. I am going to start. THE PORT OF NEW ORLEANS IS TEMPORARILY DOWN…02/26/2015 5:34 PM

  • HalfFullClass

    Direct quote:
    “None of those issues are the fault of the equipment itself, said Jeff Smith, a former municipal traffic engineer who now works for Temple Inc., the company that supplied the lights and solar panels. “The system, as it was designed, was a good one,” he said.
    Smith said his company trained the city and a contractor, Jack B. Harper Electrical, on how to install and maintain the system.
    Smith said the problems found by The Lens could be due to improper installation and lack of maintenance, though he’s not familiar with how the city now maintains them.”

    If we were to grade Mr. Smith and his company Temple Inc. on their “installation and maintenance” training, in LA Department of Education language, we would declare them a failure. The sad part is that Temple has already cashed their checks and our system does not work properly. Next we should blame J H B Electrical, the city and then those silly trees and overpasses that are blocking those perfectly designed solar panels!

    It is ironic that the revenue producing traffic cameras are functioning properly while our school children are on their own darting through traffic to catch their buses.
    Sad, sad, sad

  • nickelndime

    MY EYES! MY EYES! “HalfFullClass” is so bright, I cannot see. I cannot read the article anymore because it is making me laugh and we know what happens after that. The explanation is so convoluted (the equipment – no, the maintenance – no, the solar panels – no, the sun – no, the transmitter – no, the city – no, the installation … no no no – yes yes yes) that I think it is great that “HalfFullClass” took the time to comment on it. 02/28/2015 1:20 PM

  • nickelndime

    Yes, you are correct, “HalfFullClass.” How could such a perfectly good system become so perfectly malfunctioning? That is the million dollar question and could apply to so many things in this city. 02/28/2015 1:25 PM