There was a fire in the front of the bus on the right side! I was sitting in the second row on the right, role-playing a student who is autistic. There were four other "students" on the bus. They were seated two to three rows behind me. One was in a wheelchair in the middle of the bus. When each team went through its evacuation drill, I was the last student removed from the bus. However, I was the student most in danger from the fire. Why was I the last student evacuated? The answer is simple: drivers and aides have been taught that students who are autistic tend to run. That's why they didn't evacuate me first; they thought I might wander away, possibly into traffic. However, I was not safe in this case. These evacuation drills took place at the first National Special Transportation Safety Roadeo in Orlando, Fla., on March 8, 1998. The roadeo provided an excellent opportunity to practice evacuation techniques with special-needs students. I learned that we cannot train in absolutes. In many cases, students who are autistic do run. If possible, they should be the last students evacuated. However, our training programs must empower the transportation staff to make vital decisions on the spot - using all of their resources. They need to be able to address the emergency and plan accordingly. The bus driver and aide should have been monitoring how rapidly the fire was spreading. Was there a passer-by who could have held the autistic student? Could the student have been moved back a few rows, away from the flames, until everyone else was evacuated? Only by training and practice will drivers and aides be able to make split-second decisions.
Plan requires teamwork
Every bus should have an emergency evacuation plan developed by a team of professionals who are familiar with the students. Whenever possible, teachers should be involved because they know the students the best. In addition, teachers can assist with classroom instruction on emergencies. Another key person is the student's occupational therapist (OT) and/or physical therapist (PT). They have a wealth of knowledge about the physical capability of the student, whether the student is orthopedically fragile and how to transfer, lift or carry the student.
Students need training
Special-education students often have difficulty with changes in their routines. That's why they should be involved in evacuation drills. For example, students who use a wheelchair often have difficulty leaving their chair behind. During a drill, they can see for themselves how important it is to quickly evacuate the bus. You can always replace equipment; a student's life is more important. Toddlers and infants in car seats should be evacuated while strapped into the seat. By leaving the little ones in the car seats, you reduce the potential for them to start wandering into dangerous situations. Also, with the children in car seats, you already have protection for them when they are put on the ground.
Every student who uses a wheelchair is unique. He may have brittle bones or serious deformities that are not obvious. The OT and/or PT must be involved in planning for these students. One of the first questions to ask: Is the student more easily moved in or out of the wheelchair? In the case of a motorized wheelchair, which can weigh 200 pounds, you have no choice. You will need to transfer the student out of the wheelchair. Most likely a student who needs a motorized wheelchair will not be able to physically assist you. This student will need to be lifted, lowered to a fire blanket and then dragged out of the bus. Always remember, if a blanket drag is necessary, the student should be positioned so his head leaves the bus first. In this way you can support the head and neck. Some students with serious deformities may be more easily removed in their wheelchairs. Don't be deceived by the size of these students - their deformities may make lifting them out of the wheelchair precarious. Some students may spasm when quickly taken out of the wheelchair, and this movement could throw someone off balance. With the help of the OT and/or PT, the bus staff can determine which students should remain in their wheelchairs.
A calming voice helps
Whether you are in an emergency situation or routine process, always talk to the students. Some may not be able to understand your words, but a calming tone will help them remain calm. In summary, evacuation plans must be well thought out. Back-up plans should also be discussed. However, we cannot stop there. The emergency plans must be physically executed. Practicing with weighted dummies - or fellow staff members as students - can make the process more comfortable. In my opinion, however, we must perform evacuation drills with the students themselves. OTs and PTs should be present for these drills. Together, we can effectively plan for emergencies. Remember, in emergencies, quick thinking is key, and that comes from practice.
Jean Zimmerman is a district resource therapist for occupational and physical therapy at the School District of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla.