Are You Prepared for a Critical Incident?

Eileen Danahy
Posted on August 1, 1999

The likelihood of a fatal or serious injury accident involving a school bus is relatively small, but school systems need to be prepared for any eventuality. At Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, we respond to these emergencies with what we call a critical incident team. The purpose of the team is to address the needs of the students and other passengers on the bus and to ensure proper incident investigation. This team should also protect the interests of the school system and minimize civil liability. This team comprises individuals who are specially prepared to handle critical incidents likely to result in media attention, civil liability or criminal charges. A working partnership among intergovernmental agencies — such as police departments, fire departments, insurance agencies and legal offices — is essential.

Team has 2 functions
In the event of a critical incident, the team handles administrative duties as well as accident investigation. Let’s first discuss these administrative assignments. Because an accident scene can quickly become an area of hysteria and confusion, a written policy assigning basic tasks is a necessity. Here are several basic questions that need to be answered through administrative policy.

  • Who calls the police and ambulance service?
  • What are the responsibilities of the driver and attendant?
  • Who maintains the list of students on the bus, the transportation department or the school?
  • Who maintains the list of emergency phone numbers to contact parents?
  • Who notifies parents that their child was involved in a serious crash?
  • Who documents the hospital name and address where each child is transported?
  • What do you do when a collision occurs in the afternoon after school has dismissed and all school telephones are now on an answering machine?
  • Who maintains a manifest or passenger list for after-hours operations (e.g., field trips, athletic trips or activity buses)? More often than not, fire departments will be at the accident scene well before transportation personnel. Do you have a plan to work with the fire department or ambulance service in your area so you can determine the answers to these questions?

    Compliance is critical
    In a recent meeting concerning a special-needs student, the principal was asked if she had a list of the special-education students and their assigned buses. Her response was that she had them for all the regular-education students, but not for the special-needs students. In this case, a policy mandate was not followed. This would have compounded confusion had there been a serious incident. Written policies and procedures can and will assist you in the event of a critical incident. Administrative and school offices need to understand the importance of transportation policies and be willing to share the responsibilities. Here are some areas of planning that require mutual agreement:

  • Radio dispatch responsibilities
  • Driver and attendant responsibilities
  • School notification
  • Parent notification
  • Media response
  • Release of students from the incident scene
  • Psychological needs for trauma for students and all staff The person taking the initial call (dispatcher or transportation supervisor) should have a checklist of all parties to be notified. All information should be collected and referred to this central point to ensure current and accurate information. This location would be the communication hub. The undocumented release of students from a serious incident scene could be a source of intense confusion. You need to determine how to address the following questions:
  • Will parents be allowed to take students from the scene?
  • Who will keep track, especially if a parent also takes a neighbor’s child?
  • How would the parent of a non-verbal child be positively identified?
  • Transporting students back to their school to be released to their parents is one option.
  • If students are not seriously injured, children may be delivered to their home by a relief bus. Other administrative considerations include consulting a crisis intervention group. Consisting of psychologists and/or therapists, this group should be prepared to offer counseling to all school system parties. In one case involving a fatality, this service was offered to everyone except the bus driver. This unfortunate oversight has changed standard operating procedure in one jurisdiction, and a school system psychologist may report directly to an incident scene as appropriate.
  • Crash probe basics
    Investigation of a collision is an extremely technical process. A working partnership with public safety personnel is invaluable. Establishing a mutual protocol with emergency services at the incident scene is essential and can be done properly only through planning. Also, remember that school personnel should never hinder the critical work being done by police and fire departments. A trained collision investigator is an asset to any transportation system. There are generally three levels of collision investigation:

  • At scene
  • Advanced
  • Reconstruction Although there may be different titles for these levels of instruction, you could check with your state’s highway administration, state police or even your local jurisdiction to see what courses are offered through its police department. Inquire if they would make seats available for someone on your staff to attend their classes. Perhaps they would work with you to develop a course specifically tailored to school bus transportation. You may want to have an informational packet developed for each driver, so data can be collected immediately by the driver or attendant, before supervisory staff arrives. For example, a checklist with drivers’ responsibilities, the passenger position chart, cards with other driver information and insurance information. An investigator’s accident kit for team members should be readily available and include the following:
  • 35mm camera with flash (and extra film)
  • 100-foot measuring tape
  • Flashlights
  • Extra reflectors or fuses
  • Note pads, pens, pencils
  • Collision scene checklist
  • Passenger injury list
  • Grease pencils to mark final rest of vehicles and skid marks Scene photographs are critical to document a collision. Investigators should take lots of pictures. Remember, film is cheap compared to what you may face in settling civil litigation. From the photos, a collision reconstructionist can determine what actually occurred. Measuring of skidmarks is also extremely important. Learn how to read and measure them. If your state law has degrees of liability, this may become an important factor. Vehicle inspection and notation of any damage may be helpful later. Photos, though important, are not the only recording method. A video camera is also an option. Record the dates and times of day you have taken notes or filmed the video. Keep all evidence secured to maintain chain of custody. In the event that you testify in court, questions relating to the scene, time of day, weather conditions, road conditions, etc., will be asked. Photography will help to refresh your memory, particularly because civil or criminal cases may not be presented in court for two or three years after the incident. Attorneys may take advantage of the extended time to confuse your recollection. A standard operating procedure should be developed and maintained so there is no question of on-scene responsibilities.

    A quick summary
    If you are interested in forming a critical incident team, here is what you need to do:

  • Recognize the need for partnerships with school administrators, public safety personnel, school insurance carriers and legal counsel.
  • Prepare written policies and procedures and review them periodically.
  • Practice by conducting mock drills.
  • Run through a debriefing to see if the developments are useful and initiate corrections if appropriate.
  • Make a dedicated effort to train staff in collision investigation. A critical incident team with assigned responsibilities is essential in order to diminish confusion the day of the event as well as years later.

    Author Eileen Danahy is a transportation specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md.

    Related Topics: evacuation drills, law enforcement, school bus crash

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