By Jean Zimmerman
I recently had the opportunity to travel to many states throughout the country to present on emergency evacuation methods for students with special needs.
At the workshops, I was provided with different types of school buses, and I performed evacuation drills with help from participants.
During the drills, we ran into several problems that led me to become increasingly concerned about the logistical configuration of the buses that I have been working on.
Creating an evacuation plan is key
Before I relay my findings and subsequent concerns, I must mention that establishing an evacuation plan for special-needs students before they board a school bus is essential to ensure that they remain safe in the event of an emergency, and key members of the district’s transportation staff should be involved in developing the plans. These individuals include the transportation supervisor, the bus driver and attendant, the nurse (if a nurse normally rides with a particular student), the occupational and physical therapists that work with the student, and local emergency teams.
Occupational and physical therapists are important members of a district’s team, as they are familiar with the physical deformities, muscle weaknesses and abnormal muscle activity of individual students. They also understand how each student’s equipment (such as a wheelchair) operates, they know the weight of the equipment and of the student, and they can identify whether the student should be evacuated while he or she is still in the wheelchair or if the student needs to be lifted out of the wheelchair and transferred to an evacuation transporter.
The evacuation plan for each student should be written and shared with all of the individuals who are involved in his or her transport.
Emergency evacuation methods
The most logical way to evacuate special-needs students during an emergency — particularly if their wheelchairs are extremely heavy or custom-molded — is with the bus’ wheelchair lift.
If, however, there is a mechanical problem with the lift or if the entire right side of the bus is blocked because of the crash and there is no way to use the lift, other evacuation methods must be employed.
Some students, due to their physical deformities and muscle movements, are safer being evacuated from the bus in their wheelchair. Other students who travel on the bus seated in a motorized wheelchair would need to be transferred to an evacuation transporter and then manually moved to the bus’ emergency exit.
As a result of performing the emergency evacuation drills, I have found that to successfully evacuate students using these methods, there must be sufficient space within the bus to get to the emergency exit and sufficient width to transport students through the emergency exit.