How to Navigate Your Fleet Through Disasters

Steve Hirano, Executive Editor
Posted on October 1, 1998

By definition, you cannot "expect the unexpected." That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t be fully prepared for low-probability events, especially natural disasters. When disaster strikes, the first priority for school bus operators is the safety of their passengers. That sounds simple and direct, but a lack of foresight can turn a disaster into, well, a disaster. That’s because many people believe that common sense, above all else, is what’s required in a crisis. But some emergency planning experts disagree. "Common sense is a good thing, except that in a crisis, you get rattled and common sense goes away," says Karleen Berra, vice president of Berra Engineering, a Houston-based consulting firm that creates crisis management plans for industry and public agencies, including school districts. "If you can lay out ahead of time what common sense would dictate, then you’re much better off," Berra says. "It’s hard to think it through when you’re in the actual crisis." Berra recommends that school districts, and transportation departments, have written plans that can be quickly referenced and absorbed during a disaster. The best method of imparting this information, she says, is through easy-to-read flow charts. Wading through gray text-only pages when the crisis hits can be difficult and time-consuming, she says. Having a plan — and knowing how to implement it — can be the difference between effective crisis management and chaos, whether you’re dealing with a fire, flood, earthquake, tornado or other disaster. However, the ability to improvise solutions is also a critical factor in the successful handling of disasters. Michael Rea, director of the West County Transportation Agency in Sebastopol, Calif., which provides transportation for a dozen school districts in Northern California’s Sonoma County, believes that good common sense is a valuable commodity in a crisis. "You can write all the policies and procedures that you want, but invariably, you’re going to have a disaster that’s going to have elements that no written plan is going to cover," Rea says. "You need to know what your resources are, what you can expect to accomplish and what you cannot reasonably accomplish." What, then, is the most effective method of handling a disaster? The answer is to have a plan — but also to be prepared to improvise if necessary. The following are examples of school districts that face a variety of disasters and how they prepare and cope with them.

Driving a rocky road
Southern California is famous for its Hollywood celebrities — and its natural disasters. Earthquakes, wildfires and landslides plague the region on a regular basis. It’s not surprising, then, that school transportation operations need to be prepared for nearly any eventuality. At Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the transportation department maintains a constant vigil for natural disasters. "We have them every year," says Neal Abramson, the district’s assistant transportation director. Being prepared for them requires "a lot of planning and the cooperation of many different agencies," he adds. One of the main concerns of the school district is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the main thoroughfare between Santa Monica and Malibu. Because PCH is frequently closed for fires, floods and mudslides, every school bus and every school in the affected areas is equipped with two-way radios. "Also, each radio has a battery back-up and the fire department has access to our frequency if necessary," Abramson says. Each school site also has a disaster-ready team and stores enough food and water for all students and staff for at least three days. The disaster teams receive biannual training from local fire and police departments on emergency response, including triage and rescue/recovery. "We have annual drills that include the complete evacuation of two of our schools to off-site locations," Abramson says. "We use every bus in the fleet and then again with just a few buses." Drivers play a key role in disaster planning as well. Abramson says all drivers know every canyon road and alternate route in the area. Complacency, Abramson says, is the enemy when it comes to disaster preparedness. "Our manuals are updated whenever necessary," he says. "There is much more to do, but we learn more each year."

No hurry for hurricanes
Preparing for a hurricane is quite a bit different than it is for earthquakes, mudslides and fires, mainly because there’s plenty of advance notice. Hurricane Bonnie, which hammered North Carolina in late August, was tracked closely for several days before it reached land. Fortunately, it proved to be gentler than many meteorologists predicted, but the potential for damage and casualties was high. At Onslow County Schools, a few miles up the coast from hard-hit Wilmington, Transportation Director Jeff Smith was better prepared for Hurricane Bonnie than Hurricane Fran, which ravaged the area in 1996. "Hurricane Fran was a good lesson for us," he says. Smith is a member of the county’s emergency management disaster team. He met with fellow emergency officials three days before the hurricane reached land and every day thereafter. By the time Fran arrived, Smith had made sure that all of his approximately 200 school buses were sheltered at least six miles inland. "We bunched them up together, and none were damaged," he says. During Hurricane Fran, the transportation department had a large role in emergency response. The district’s four fueling trucks, which can store 1,400 gallons each, were used to deliver diesel to Army National Guard generators and local municipalities that used generators to keep their sewer systems functioning. For Hurricane Bonnie, county officials prepared their fuel supplies before the storm arrived. Once the worst of Fran had passed, four Onslow school buses were used to transport coastal residents back to their homes. They had been evacuated about six miles inland to emergency shelters.Overall, Smith says the buses ferried about 1,000 residents. Smith says the district uses seven coordinators, one for each high school, to contact drivers in case of an emergency. Occasionally, these coordinators have to round up the drivers for early dismissal. A snowstorm, for example, might cause schools to close early. "When we get snow, it’s a disaster," Smith says, laughing. Anticipating this scenario, Smith puts his coordinators on alert status, meaning they should stay by the phone and be prepared to act quickly. To keep up with weather conditions, Smith monitors the Internet, both at home and at work. "A lot of times I’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to check the weather [on the Internet] if I know the night before they’re expecting inclement weather," he says. In Palm Beach County School District in Florida, school buses are occasionally used to evacuate coastal residents, especially those in retirement homes, in the event of an approaching hurricane. To make sure that buses are available, they’re fueled and compounded either inside or in outside lots with adequate drainage, according to Joe Reed, assistant transportation director at Palm Beach County. The fueling is taken care of before the storm hits, because power could be knocked out for several days, Reed says.

Floods test mettle
In the wake of El Niño, many parts of the country still have unpleasant memories of powerful rains and flooding. In Northern California, the rains were heavy but were also spread out over several months, so flooding of local waterways was minimal. Still, school bus operators were forced to deal with lots of water on the road. Rea of the West County Transportation Agency says it’s important to know your drivers’ personalities during periods of heavy rain. "We have some in a disaster who want to put their cape on and drive their bus over the swollen river," Rea says, "and we have others who see a trickle across the road and they want to park the bus and wait until it’s all over." Rea says it might be wise to reassign routes based on the drivers’ confidence levels. Timid drivers, he says, will occasionally be shifted to a "dry" route if their regular route would force them to cross water on the roads. During a disaster, the agency’s school buses could be used as a backup communication system. Should there be a power outage that knocks out school site communications, a bus equipped with a two-way radio would be dispatched to each school, Rea says. That would create a communication network that could be accessed by the county’s emergency management agency.

Twisters are no game
If a school bus is driving down the road and the driver spots a tornado heading in his direction, what should he do? According to Jim Kline, transportation supervisor at Crosby Independent School District in Texas, the driver should stop the bus on the side of the road and instruct the children to crouch down below the glass level. It might make more sense to evacuate the bus and have the children hunker down in a roadside ditch, but Kline says many of the drainage ditches in his area are filled with water. "I don’t want those little ones in a deep ditch full of water," he says. The best advice, Kline says, is for the driver to stay calm. "It’s hard for someone sitting back in an office to try to tell someone driving a bus watching a tornado come at ’em what to do." In Minnesota, tornadoes are most likely to strike in May, June and July, although they can occur as early as March and as late as November. Although the state is not associated with deadly tornadoes, the danger still exists and the weather phenomenon needs to be respected. Jill Williams, safety director for Kottkes’ Bus Service in Andover, Minn., counsels the company’s approximately 140 drivers to be aware of conditions that lead to severe weather. These conditions include a dark, often greenish sky, a wall cloud, large hail and a loud roar resembling the rumble of a train. "Knowing how to recognize threatening weather, and where and when to seek shelter are key factors in ensuring the safety of the passengers," Williams says. The best shelters, she says, are schools, police and fire stations, churches, shopping malls and ditches free from trees, power lines and water. Kottkes’ has developed a severe weather evacuation plan that’s kept in the route book of every bus and is presented to the drivers during the April safety meeting. "We feel this information is invaluable to our regular route drivers, but crucial to our relief drivers who may be unfamiliar with a route," Williams says.

Tabletop lava flows
At Mission School District in British Columbia, Transportation Supervisor Tom Proud understands the importance of disaster preparedness. Proud serves as the transportation coordinator for the local emergency operations center, which conducts twice-a-year exercises for disaster preparedness. Recent exercises have included a mock volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Baker and an earthquake measuring over 7.0 on the Richter scale. In many cases, school buses are an integral part of the planning. "Most of the scenarios involve evacuating kids from one school to another," Proud explains. They might also involve using wheelchair lift-equipped school buses to evacuate retirement homes. Typically, the scenarios are "tabletop exercises" rather than simulations, but Proud says they still provide hands-on instruction that could be critical during an actual disaster. For example, during last year’s volcanic eruption scenario, called "Thunderbird 3," it was pointed out that wet towels placed over the bus’ air cleaners would keep ash spewed by the volcano from fouling the operation of the engine. "All of that kind of stuff is part of the action of the play," Proud says.

Tsunamis strike quickly
In Hawaii, hurricanes can cause untold damage to property, but few lives are lost because the storms are tracked for several days prior to their landing on the islands. But local tsunamis (tidal waves), can develop and strike within 5 to 10 minutes. "This means that we have to evacuate schools close to the beaches rather quickly," says Melvin Seo, administrator for student transportation and safety at Hawaii’s Department of Education. Instead of using school buses to evacuate the 15 schools situated close enough to the shoreline to be endangered, safety officials decided to have the children walk to higher ground. "One of the things we’ve learned is to minimize the number of vehicles on the road," Seo says. In 1986, a tsunami warning issued in the early afternoon caused gridlock on the local highways, which have few secondary roads. "Had a large wave actually arrived, we would have had some real tragedies."

Living in a nuclear family
Most school districts needn’t worry about nuclear disaster, but Monroe Public Schools in Monroe, Mich., doesn’t have that luxury. It lies within a 10-mile radius of the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant — called the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ). As such, the district needs to be prepared to evacuate its students should there be an accident at the plant, which is operated by Detroit Edison. Transportation Director Kim Hooper says the Monroe district’s evacuation plan calls for moving 9,000 students to a community college outside the EPZ. From there, the students would be transferred to a high school in a neighboring school district and housed in a gymnasium and auditorium until their parents could pick them up. The plan, which is coordinated by the county’s emergency management agency, is updated yearly to account for changes in school population numbers and locations of wheelchair-bound students. "We’re confident with this plan as much as with any other plan that could be developed," Hooper says. "It’s certainly better than not having a plan at all." With 75 school buses at his disposal, Hooper believes he can perform the evacuation in three legs, possibly two. The schools closest to the plant would be evacuated first, followed by the outer schools. The plan has been tested in a "paper exercise," but Hooper knows that a real evacuation could be much different. "There’s the unknown factor," he says. "For example, we don’t know what the roads would be like, especially if there’s panic in the community. We’re not naive enough to believe that it’s going to be as easy as one-two-three." Hooper says parents are encouraged not to pick up their children at schools in the event of an emergency because the extra traffic could cause delays and clog school driveways. To remind parents of what to do in an emergency, the school district and Detroit Edison officials send fliers on a regular basis. "The biggest thing with nuclear power is people not knowing what to expect," Hooper says. "If they don’t panic, we can serve the community better." Detroit Edison spokesman Guy Cerullo says there has not been a major incident at the power plant since it went online in 1988. He says a community evacuation would be ordered only if a plant emergency reached the fourth level, which is called a "general emergency." The first three levels are an "unusual event," an "alert" and a "site area emergency," which would only affect the area within the plant perimeter.

How to take charge
To assess your preparedness for disaster response, take the following steps:

1. List all potential disasters.

2. For each disaster, determine your vulnerability and identify emergency plans at the department and school district levels.

3. Evaluate the feasibility of each of these plans based on available resources and training.

4. Determine whether plans can be tested with drills, tabletop exercises or full-scale simulations.

5. Test and review the effectiveness of the plans.

6. If the plans prove to be ineffective, consult with your school district’s emergency management team or contact local, state or federal emergency planning agencies.

Related Topics: evacuation drills

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