Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Every day, hundreds of school buses set out on field or activity trips — elementary school children head out to museums, football teams trundle off to out-of-town games and marching bands load up for parade appearances. Field trips, by and large, are positive, exciting events for students, but what if something goes awry? What if a child is injured on the bus while the museum trip is underway? What if a school bus returning from a football game breaks down in the dark? What if a sudden snowstorm strands the band on its way to the parade grounds? When the unexpected happens, the savvy transportation manager is already prepared. "Crisis management before a crisis occurs is the best defense," says Bruce Lyskawa, CEO of Bruce Transportation Group in Hudson, N.H. Lyskawa manages a fleet of 926 buses serving districts in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Much of his business involves field-trip service. Says Lyskawa, "Know what you will do each step along the way for a breakdown, an accident or lost child." Rich Hansen, director of transportation at School District 47 and School District 155 in Crystal Lake, Ill., agrees with Lyskawa. His districts operate 84 buses and log more than 1.3 million miles a year. The fleet made approximately 10,000 field trips last year. "Vigilance is key," Hansen says. "We treat any movement of kids, whether it is a field trip or a regular route, as a crucial process, and we plan ahead." Both Hansen and Lyskawa, as well other as other pupil transportation experts, offered advice that fell into five broad areas: 1) communication procedures; 2) driver preparation and equipment selection; 3) incident scenarios; 4) safety training for students, teachers and chaperones, and 5) what to do during and after an actual crisis. Read on to see if your extracurricular-trip procedures need any "extra" improvement.
Generally, transportation managers are responsible for most aspects of the field-trip process, from the paperwork — requests for buses, route planning and expense reporting — to safety and equipment procedures. A good communication system helps ensure smooth and safe operations. First, make sure drivers, teachers, coaches and chaperones are aware of their responsibilities before the trips with planning sessions and after the trips with debriefings. Says Lyskawa, "Have a written action plan that considers all possible what-if situations, and work out on paper who will be responsible for what. Don’t assume that details will take care of themselves." Second, your written plan should include a list of emergency contacts. "Update this list each September," says Lyskawa. Hansen in Crystal Lake adds to this point. "Make sure you have a way to contact personnel after-hours since many athletic buses travel after regular business hours." Hansen makes sure personnel in the transportation department can be reached around the clock, seven days a week, through a system of answering services and pagers. "Modern technology makes it easier," says Hansen, "but you have to set up a system and test it out." Cellular phones are a boon for extracurricular-trip drivers. Hansen says that his drivers are issued a cellular phone or drive a vehicle with a two-way radio for each out-of-district field trip, adding that supervisors should "provide phones or radios even if you have to borrow one." In New Hampshire, Lyskawa’s action plan includes how to handle cold-weather problems, as well as print-outs of computerized files about the locations where his buses travel. "A driver can open a binder, look up the route, and find out directions, traffic hazards and parking instructions," he says. Lyskawa also makes sure that all drivers, chaperones, teachers and coaches are provided with a laminated, wallet-sized card that lists emergency phone numbers. "What we try to do is really common sense," he says. "We want everyone to have the information they need right at their fingertips."
Prepare your buses
Field-trip driving conditions may affect buses differently than regular-route driving. A bus that must wait in the cold, winter dark while a football game wraps up may need a plug-in battery warmer in order to ensure start-up after the game. In New Hampshire’s severely cold weather, Lyskawa says that "sometimes it’s simpler to have the driver stay on the bus and keep the engine running." Extreme heat, heavy rain or even unusually rough road conditions all need to be considered. Although the debate about non-conforming vehicles continues, the reality is that many districts rely on vans to carry small groups on activity trips. Some districts prohibit the use of any non-conforming vehicles, while others permit certain types of vans to be used for groups with fewer than 10 passengers. For example, the Wichita (Kan.) Public School District permits the use of properly insured eight-passenger vans, but Ed Raymond, director of transportation, notes that the policy is under review.
Qualify your drivers
Choosing drivers for field trips generally depends on seniority procedures and shift rotations. Most states have restrictions on how much time a driver can spend behind the wheel. Many districts require specialized training, such as "night-driving" qualifications. Some districts have more experienced drivers show newer hires the ropes, especially in big-city driving situations where knowledge of the area is crucial. In many states, drivers receive specialized training for activity trips. In California, the mandatory curriculum covers how to safely transport extra equipment such as athletic gear and luggage, and how to handle rest, food or fueling stops. Some districts prohibit coaches from driving, but when coaches or teachers find themselves behind the wheel, make sure they have all the proper training. "If a coach is driving, he or she should be as qualified as a regular-route driver," says Ron Kinney, former state pupil transportation director in California. "Don’t skimp on railroad-grade crossing training, either." Above all, drivers of activity buses must remain vigilant. Lyskawa describes a trip where a chaperone incorrectly counted the students as they boarded the bus after a museum visit. "I had counted at the beginning, and we were two kids short," says Lyskawa. "The chaperone said the kids were probably on another bus and urged me to leave. I didn’t until I’d contacted the other buses." It turned out that the two children had been accidentally left behind at the museum.
Networks can help
Mechanical breakdowns can wreak havoc on the best-planned field trip. When your buses are traveling outside your district, forming networks with other districts and contractors can improve response time if assistance is needed. In New Hampshire, where contractors provide about 85 percent of all school bus services, help for a stranded school bus may be only minutes away. Dick Clough, executive director of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association, has developed a directory of networking-assistance contacts that includes more than 75 fleet managers. "The directory has a map, with phone numbers, as well as a list of available services," says Clough. "As a fleet-management tool, the list can help you locate a mechanic at midnight or arrange for spare tires or even a spare bus." The services that participating fleets offer are not necessarily free, but they are available because, as Clough notes, "safety of the students is the top priority." Wichita Public Schools’ Raymond makes a habit of phoning school districts at the destination point before trips. "This way, we can find out about local weather and traffic conditions," he says.
Every breakdown is unique, but as Lyskawa explains, the top priority is passenger safety: First, make sure all passengers are safe. Second, secure a bus and transport the passengers home as soon as possible. Third, fix or tow the bus. "Don’t get caught in the trap of sending a mechanic out to spend time fixing the bus," says Lyskawa. Instead, have the mechanic drive a bus to the breakdown site, then let the field-trip driver load up and head home with the children while the mechanic stays with the disabled bus. Avoid having passengers stand on the roadside while attempting to fix the problem. Provide safety instructions for all passengers, detailing what each should do during a crisis. Before trips, distribute a written list to teachers and chaperones. Of course, drivers always should orally review the rules with their riders. Encourage your drivers to hone their people skills — the driver may be the only transportation professional who will interact with the teachers and chaperones on the trip. Students, especially those who may only board the bus two or three times a year for a field trip, need to understand rider-safety rules, as well as loading zone dangers. Be prepared to call parents to inform them of any delays. "In the case of a breakdown, parents may be waiting in a dark parking lot at school to pick up their kids," says Lyskawa. "Parents want to know that their children are safe and how long the delay will be."
In case of an accident
After an accident, the first priority is to ensure that all passengers are safe and to obtain emergency care. The driver should be prepped on how to manage the scene, unless he or she is injured. Then a teacher or chaperone should be the one to contact the home district officials. Lyskawa says his company dispatches a representative who heads out to the scene and then follows up with all phases of the incident. "When an accident occurs, parents are anxious and upset," says Lyskawa. "If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll be overwhelmed by all the emotions." Emotions run high during a crisis, agrees Hansen. "Parents may question you and want to interject their own solutions to the problem. Unlike a school principal or dean, the transportation official may lack credibility with parents." Debriefing after an accident allows you to fine-tune your procedures by determining what worked and what didn’t. Concludes Hansen, "The bottom line is we are transporting someone else’s children, and we have to satisfy parents that we are taking good care of their kids."
Dealing with parents after an accident
The transportation supervisor is often the contact person who will notify parents in the event of a problem. After an accident, parents are frantic to know whether their children are safe and unharmed, and if not, parents want to know where their children are. Here are some tips for dealing with parents after an accident:
Rail-grade crossing safety
Even if your drivers don’t meet up with railroad grade crossings on their daily routes, they most likely will encounter railroad tracks during field or activity trips. Review your routes in advance to pinpoint any rail-grade crossings, and emphasize with your drivers the need for proper procedures. Remember, in rural areas, many crossings have warning signs but no electronically activated gates. Darkness and weather conditions can increase the hazards. For more information on railroad grade crossing safety, contact Operation Lifesaver, the non-profit organization has chapters in 49 states and taps the resources of more than 1,500 volunteers. OL can be reached by phone at 800/537-6224, or via the Web at <a href="http://www.oli.org>www.oli.org</a>.
Catherine G. Bruhn is a freelance writer in Mililani, Hawaii.
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