It's good that the pupil transportation industry is blowing its horn lately, focusing on the relative safety of the school bus over other modes of transportation to and from school. We need to educate the public about our excellent safety record.
However, an excellent safety record can be a double-edged sword. Overconfidence is dangerous in our business. I think our industry has become a little complacent about emergency readiness — especially, the ability of bus drivers and attendants to evacuate children with special needs in a bus fire.
Bus fires do happen
One reason the issue isn't getting the attention it deserves is the myth that school bus fires are extremely rare. You've probably heard that sentiment expressed at conferences and workshops. Although it's impossible to say for certain how many school bus fires occur each year (there's no national reporting mechanism for bus fires like that for school bus fatalities), school bus fires are not extremely rare. I estimate, based on anecdotal reports and our own in-house fire incident database, that there are approximately 25 significant school bus fires each year in the United States. By "significant," I mean incidents in which at least part of the bus actually burns, not just electrical shorts in heater motors. Some fires involve "deadhead" buses with no passengers on board and some involve buses carrying children who need to be evacuated.
As an industry we can't let ourselves become distracted with all of the other issues we face every day, forgetting about the potential for tragedy that accompanies any school bus fire. Of all the safety issues we face, there is none more important than emergency preparedness. Let's not wait for a horrible incident to motivate us to take the issue more seriously.
The claim is also sometimes made that no child has ever died in a school bus fire, but that's not true either. In the 1980s, there were three multiple-fatality incidents in which fire was at least one factor. The most well known, in Carrollton, Ky., in 1988, in which 24 children and three adults perished, involved a school bus that had recently been purchased by a church. Because the bus was operated by a church, it is sometimes not considered a "school bus" fire, but that's splitting hairs.
Don't rely on equipment
When discussing school bus fires, it's often pointed out that school buses have been drastically improved since Carrollton. The Carrollton bus was built just before the April 1, 1977, federal standards went into effect. In most states there are few if any pre-standard school buses still transporting children, and this is great. One phrase comes to mind when I think about the few remaining school systems that still permit pre-standard buses to transport children — "gambling with children's lives." While the fuel tank protective cages in place on most buses today are effective safety features, fuel tanks can still be breached in a crash, under the right circumstances.
It's also frequently pointed out that since Carrollton, and largely because of it, school buses have more emergency exits. But emergency exits and emergency preparedness are not the same thing. If drivers and attendants arenÕt sufficiently trained in how to locate, open and go out emergency exits, it doesn't matter how many exits there are.
I've found that a shockingly high percentage of experienced bus drivers cannot open some types of emergency roof hatches all the way. (Don't believe it? Set up a test with your drivers.) This is in part due to poor latch design on some dual-function (emergency exit/vent) models, but it's also because of a too-lenient attitude toward pre-trip inspections. Too many bus drivers are allowed to take short cuts in their pre-trips. Adding to the problem is the old mechanic's chestnut — telling drivers not to open the roof hatches during pre-trip because they'll leak — which is still alive and kicking in some quarters, even though that advice is actually telling drivers to violate federal law. If drivers arenÕt opening all their emergency exits all the way every single day in their pre-trips, they will be poorly prepared to open them in an emergency.
Two minutes or less
We need to remember that pupil transportation has changed in many other ways since the 1980s. By far the most significant change is the increased number of children with special needs we transport today — and the ever more severe and complex types of disabilities we are responsible for. The prospect of a bus fire involving children using wheelchairs, children who are medically fragile and children in car seats should scare us.
Many years ago a wonderful safety advocate, Linda Cary-Coleman, used the phrase "two minutes or less" to express the urgency of evacuating a bus carrying special-needs children. In fact, we've learned that in some fire scenarios two minutes is too long. In small, gas-powered school buses, the type used to transport many children with special needs, the passenger compartment can fill with toxic, lethal fumes in less than one minute in certain scenarios.
Driver, attendant and student preparation for a bus fire is absolutely critical. It can't be seen as just one more item on the supervisor's long "to do" list, one more training topic to be touched on periodically. As an industry we need to step it up a notch, to demand real readiness from our bus staff responsible for children with special needs.
When that dreaded radio call comes in, it's too late to train your drivers and attendants. In my personal experience, the state of emergency evacuation readiness in our industry is best characterized as "uneven." There are some bus companies and school districts that do an exemplary job at it. And there are others — many others — who give emergency readiness lip service. There have been too many close calls involving fires on buses transporting children with special needs, and though luckily children have been evacuated safely each time so far, "luckily" is the operative word.
Plan, teach and practice
The following six questions are intended to help you improve the emergency readiness of your drivers and attendants who transport children with special needs:
1. Do your drivers and attendants really know their buses? Can they immediately find and open every emergency exit on their buses — with their eyes closed? If the answer is no, the situation calls for improved training. In a fire, seconds count. Assuming your drivers and attendants are prepared is dangerous. Attendants, in general, tend to get forgotten in training, and a prepared attendant can be the difference between life and death in a bus fire involving children in wheelchairs or other restraints. In my experience, attendants are very appreciative of being provided training about the vehicles they ride every day — not only on emergency exits and how to safely use them, but also on how to stop and secure a bus.
2. Does every route transporting children with special needs have a clear, detailed, written evacuation plan? Evacuation plans should address the two most common fire scenarios — an engine fire and a fire at the rear of the bus (for instance, because another vehicle has crashed into it). The plan should describe the exact sequence in which children will be evacuated for each scenario; exactly what the driver and attendant are to do; whether children will be removed from their wheelchairs, car seats or other restraints for the evacuation, or removed from them first; if any medical equipment can be temporarily detached from the child; how the children will be kept together off the bus; and any other special concerns arising from the type of disabilities being transported. As my colleague Kathy Furneaux tells drivers and attendants, "If you don't know how you'll get a child out in an emergency, don't put the child on your bus."
3. Are evacuation plans actually practiced on a regular basis? It's extremely important for buses transporting children with severe disabilities to hold frequent, realistic drills. It takes cooperation between transportation and the school to arrange drills for children with special needs. The backing and active involvement of the school — principal, teacher, therapists, psychologists, etc. — is critical.
If children are medically fragile or have other types of severe disabilities, school staff and in some cases even parents may need to be present as a safeguard during a drill. But there is no excuse for failing to practice evacuation. If the school won't cooperate with a transportation request to conduct drills for children with special needs, the superintendent should be notified. Children's lives are very much at stake.
To establish and maintain real readiness, monthly drills are called for. Drills must include hands-on evacuation practice. One reason drills for special-needs children are important is that for some children with special needs, anything deviating from the daily routine can be extraordinarily upsetting.
I know of an incident in which a very large autistic student at first refused to get off a burning bus. The bus was in the school loop as the fire broke out. It took the assistance of two of the child's classroom teachers to convince him to get off. The fire destroyed the bus. Kids need to be told ahead of time, again and again, what to do, what to expect, if their bus is involved in a sudden emergency. Drivers and attendants must have a clear sense of how each child on their bus would react in a real emergency, and there's no better way to find out than through practice.
4. Are drivers and attendants provided with sufficient information about the children they transport? "Confidentiality" is sometimes used by special educators as an excuse for refusing to provide transportation staff with critical information about how a child will react in an emergency. Actually, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act says just the opposite. It requires school staff members who are responsible for a child's health and safety to be provided needed information.
5. Are local emergency responders informed about the types of children being transported on your buses? Joint training sessions involving emergency responders and transportation staff are a necessity. There have been many incidents in which emergency responders have arrived at the scene of a school bus emergency and didn't know how to handle the children on the bus. Local emergency responders need to be educated about the mobility devices and restraint systems on today's school buses. They need to be informed about the types of medical equipment that could be encountered. They need to understand how today's buses are built, powered, fueled, etc. Some school districts now hold monthly meetings between local emergency responders and transportation staff. At least an annual "mass casualty" training exercise should be conducted in every community, and the likelihood of an emergency involving children with special needs should be included.
6. Are emergency information packets for children with special needs carried on your buses? The packets should contain information about a child that could be important in an emergency. Emergency responders need to know where the packets are located on your buses. Photo ID cards help emergency responders sort out who's who in the chaos of an emergency. The information must be treated as confidential in nature.
Training pays off
Imagine this scenario: One of your buses, transporting several children with a wide range of special needs and conditions, is on its afternoon route. The regular monitor and attendant are on board.
Suddenly, thick smoke begins to pour into the bus from under the dash. Then flames are visible. The voice of the bus driver calling in stops everyone in the office. You know this is the real thing. Now, all the training you've provided and all the practice drills you've arranged will be tested. As you rush to the scene in your car, you pray you've done enough.
Jim Ellis is curriculum development specialist at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y.