Building a safety demonstration bus is not a simple task. It takes perseverance, resourcefulness, ingenuity, teamwork and dedication. But accomplishing this task is worth all of the challenges. Just ask the bus drivers at South Jefferson Central School District in upstate New York. Four years ago, they attended a mass casualty drill in Williamsville in western New York, and saw three safety buses on display. They were so impressed with these demonstration vehicles that they decided to build their own.
Getting the green light
The drivers pitched the idea to Transportation Supervisor Linda Gaffney, who gave them her blessing. Their dream was one step closer to reality. The next step was to garner the support of the maintenance staff of South Jefferson's transportation department. No problem there. Head mechanic John Groff backed the idea and immediately set out to obtain photos of safety buses. After securing a photo, Groff then started to determine what would be needed to make the bus a reality. An old bus would be the obvious starting point. A request for the bus was placed with Superintendent David Paciencia and South Jefferson's board of education. The idea caught their fancy, and they donated a spare bus (a 1985 Blue Bird conventional) that otherwise would have been sold. Some of the cost of the project was defrayed by a $1,000 grant from Utica National Insurance Co. Other donors included Central New York Coach, which provided the mirror system and a TV and VCR so that safety tapes could be played inside the bus. Reflective tape, lettering and an exhaust system came from Gorman Bus Sales and Stadium International.
Volunteers needed, found
Because funding was not available for labor, volunteers were necessary to complete the project. Fortunately, Groff, along with mechanics John Perry, Chris Gillette and Kent Pratt, donated many hours to the cause. The makeover began with a coat of paint. Using a paint scheme drawn from a coloring book that they obtained from the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, the mechanics colored the danger zones. They used red and orange to depict the most hazardous areas. Next, a larger, more modern roof hatch needed to be installed. The mechanics found a used Transpec hatch, which they retrofitted. Using scrap metal, Groff designed and constructed ladders and platforms that fold and secure to the sides of the vehicle. During evacuation drills, children exit through the roof hatch onto a platform and can then climb down a ladder. They perform the same routine during a window exit drill. Gaffney marveled at the mechanics' ingenuity. "We told them what we wanted and they found a way to do it," she said. The process was agonizingly slow and lasted four years. But, in June 1998, the safety bus was ready to roll. Judy Groff, a retired special-education teacher of 31 years and a school bus driver for 10 years, was chosen as safety team coordinator.
Debut is a success
About 15 drivers quickly volunteered to be on the team. The program was launched with the district's kindergartners, first graders and second graders. As word spread, the safety bus extended its presence. Since last June, nearly 3,000 people - including drivers, parents, teachers and children - have participated in the program. In addition to teaching children proper emergency evacuation techniques, the safety bus provides training in general bus safety through an on-board video show and handouts. Children are also taught about safe loading and unloading practices. The safety team has been to school districts, churches, parades, open houses, fairs and special-needs workshops. It also has been displayed at the Salmon Run Mall in Watertown, N.Y. In addition, the bus was the inspiration for an eight-minute video that illustrates safe evacuation techniques to children, teachers and parents. Because the safety bus is the only one of its kind north of Syracuse, it is often invited to visit other school districts. That involves some expense to South Jefferson, which implemented a fee structure to recoup 25 cents per mile and the cost of the drivers' time. The latter fee can be expensive, so the district encourages other districts to get their own drivers to volunteer their time. That allows South Jefferson to send a "skeleton crew."
Rewards on both sides
The safety bus provides children with practical experience on safe riding, loading/unloading and evacuation of a school bus, but it also provides the bus team with its own rewards. Groff recalls the day that the team put a class of special-needs students through the program. Many of them were absolutely euphoric that they could complete each task. "By the time we finished putting the class through the bus, most of the safety team had tears in their eyes," Groff says. "It was a very rewarding experience."
8 Steps to Your Own Dream Bus
1. Rally interest in the project among drivers, technicians and your transportation manager.
2. Take the project to the superintendent and school board. You may need their support to acquire a bus.
3. Design your safety demonstration and tailor the bus to suit your needs.
4. Solicit funding and equipment donations from your vendors.
5. Put your technicians to work. Give them plenty of input on how you want the bus to look.
6. Name a safety bus coordinator and solicit volunteers for demonstration projects.
7. Determine how much it will cost to take your safety bus demonstration to other school districts.
8. Set a reasonable fee to recover costs of transportation and labor.
Bonnie MacCartney is a bus driver for Lowville (N.Y.) Central School District.