DOHA // It was a hot morning in May and the four-year-old nursery pupil Sarah Gazdhar fell asleep on the way to school. As her classmates climbed down from the bus and went inside DPS Modern Indian School, she remained slumped over in her back-row seat.
The driver, unaware of the sleeping girl, drove the bus back to its base, parked and locked the doors. It was not until kindergarten had ended, four hours later, that anybody wondered what had become of Sarah - and by then it was too late. Sarah died of heat and suffocation. Such tragic oversights as Sarah's death may soon be a thing of the past in Qatar, as one of the capital's largest elementary schools has installed a radio-tracking system to ensure all students enter and exit the bus without incident, and other schools are queuing up to follow its lead.
"We were looking for some foolproof system to keep the children safe," said AK Shrivastava, the principal of Birla Public School, which is implementing the new system. "Schools should never have to deal with this type of incident, and now parents will feel safe and sound that children are in good hands." But Sarah's father, Mohamed Talha Gazdhar, said schools have to look beyond just an electronic system to stop such a tragedy from happening again. He called for greater oversight and detailed back-up plans in case of emergency. At most Doha schools, school buses are prohibited from operating without an attendant to monitor the children. A substitute is to be called if the regular attendant fails to appear.
On the day Sarah died, the DPS-MIS bus attendant had taken emergency medical leave and no substitute was provided. "It's good to have an alarm system," said Mr Gazdhar, "but what happens if you don't know what to do when the alarm goes off?" Sarah's death was at least the third in the Gulf in the past 18 months, after similar incidents in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and had pushed the safety of schoolchildren forefront for parents and school administrators.
In partnership with the Indian firm CND Technologies, the Doha-based IT solutions provider iNet Middle East developed the new tracking system, which uses radio and telecommunications technologies, and presented it to several schools in Qatar. Each bus is fitted with a General Packet Radio Service receiver, and each student is given an ID card with a radio chip. When a student gets into the bus, the card tips the GPRS device, which communicates with iNet's data centre. Their server passes that information on to the mobile service provider, either Qtel or Vodafone, which finally sends an SMS to the student's parent.
The system sends another message when the child exits the bus. If a child remains in the bus for five minutes after the engine has been turned off, school officials receive a phone call. As yet, there is no alert for when a student gets off the bus at the wrong place. But Sunil Nair, the head of sales and operations at iNet, said such improvements can be added. "You can enter in pick-up and drop places; we can customise that. The system can be adapted for a variety of uses and applications."
Last year, CND successfully managed the system for two schools in Bangalore. Earlier this month, iNet ran a successful trial at Birla, according to Mr Nair and school officials. The system, set to go live with 1,600 kindergarten through to second grade students when Birla re-opens in September, will cost parents a compulsory fee of 50 riyals (Dh51) per month. "We are really very thrilled about it because we've had something happen in Doha and other places, and as parents we are very concerned," said Lakshmi Ajitkumar, who has a daughter at Birla. "Now we have some peace of mind."
In Doha, only Birla has implemented the system, but according to Mr Nair, five other elementary schools - including DPS Modern Indian School - are considering it. "We are looking at any system that is most useful, most cost-effective to ensure the safety of our students," said Mohammed Ismail, principal of Shanti Niketan school. He said the school plans to have a tracking system installed for the new school year.
The DPS-MIS transport manager said his school planned to implement the system for the coming school year. This could not be confirmed with the school's principal, who was on holiday. Mr Gazdhar, whose son enters fifth standard later this year, said he felt the iNet system was less than ideal. "IDs can be lost, the server can go down," he said. "I'm an engineer, I know that software is not the whole answer, technical things have lapses, you need human beings to take responsibility, be accountable for human life." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org