On Nov. 29, 2001, a 9-year-old girl was killed and several others were critically injured when a snowplow crashed into a school bus during a snowstorm in Delta, Utah. Brent Huffman, Utah state director of pupil transportation, was in Sacramento, Calif., at the time, working with the California Office of School Transportation. He described to SBF PLUS how the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) dealt with the crisis and what was done to avoid a negative media focus on the incident.
SBF Plus: What was your first reaction when you found out about the accident?
Huffman: I was basically devastated that something like that happened in Utah. I was in John Green’s [state director of California] office and he and his assistant gathered information for me immediately from Utah television and radio stations, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.
SBF Plus: Who was the first person you contacted?
Huffman: I called Charlie Gauthier [executive director of NASDPTS] and left a voice message. Obviously he checks his voice mail pretty often because he called me back within two hours even though it was about 10 p.m. his time. He asked me for information about the school district and what would be the major news media that would cover the incident. By then, I had talked to the district transportation director about what happened, so I had more info.
SBF Plus: What action did NASDPTS take in response to the crash?
Huffman: Charlie contacted the School Bus Information Council (SBIC) public relations office and worked with them to initiate plans for media coverage. The very next day there was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune about school bus safety. The only place the paper could have gotten the information they used was from the SBIC. The article gave statistical data about how safe school buses are and what a rarity that kind of accident is.
SBF Plus: How important was the role of NASDPTS in all of this?
Huffman: I have been told if something like this happens to contact the SBIC first for help. I tried to contact them on my own but couldn’t reach anyone. I don’t know exactly what Charlie did, but he took care of the situation and eased a lot of my worries.
SBF Plus: Overall, how would you describe the media coverage of the accident?
Huffman: At first there was a media frenzy. The news media had pictures of the crash and descriptions of how it happened. But as a follow up, there was the big article on how safe school buses are. I would say that NASDPTS had a positive effect on the coverage.
SBF Plus: What advice would you give to other transportation directors faced with the same situation?
Huffman: I think my response worked very well. I contacted Charlie at NASDPTS, told him what happened and he took the ball and ran with it.
For more information, contact Brent Huffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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