Q&A: TSA's Poole Says Buses Are 'Highly Vulnerable to Terrorism'

Posted on February 1, 2006

Jean Poole believes school buses are highly vulnerable to terrorist attack and need more attention from the federal government. She has been the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) point person for the school bus industry since last April, when she took the position of branch chief, Motor Carrier Passenger Security Branch. She also is responsible for the TSA’s security initiatives involving the over-the-road coach industry.

Poole has been with the TSA since 2002, after a 20-year tenure as a highway accident investigator and, later, chief of the investigative programs division for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Prior to joining the NTSB, Poole was a trooper with the Maryland State Police, from 1977 to 1983.

Poole hopes to increase the federal government’s involvement with school bus security by addressing training concerns at every level, from the transportation director to the shop technicians to the drivers.

SBF Editor Steve Hirano spoke with Poole about the TSA’s commitment to school transportation and about training initiatives in the pipeline.

SBF: Can you summarize your activities since being named the TSA's school transportation liaison?
JEAN POOLE: Within a week after I was appointed to this position last April, I met with school transportation industry representatives and heard that they were not receiving any attention from the federal government regarding securing their operations.

After discussing options with several staff members, we decided that we would try to replicate Operation Secure Transport (a training module made specifically for the motorcoach industry) and gear it toward school transportation.

I began working to obtain a contract with Consolidated Safety Services (CSS) to obtain security awareness training for the school transportation industry.

During the same time period, our office was asked to provide possible scenarios depicting the vulnerabilities in highway transportation. Most top managers were thinking about hazardous materials and trucking and possible vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) used by terrorists to harm us. I elevated the school bus industry on the list of risk assessments as being highly vulnerable to terrorism.

Is the TSA currently working on any school bus-specific initiatives?
TSA has a contract with CSS to provide a curriculum for School Transportation Awareness Training (STAT) that provides a real-life terrorist situation with school bus driver reaction, children’s reactions and school officials’ reactions and handling of the situation. We wanted training that would provide a realistic situation and re-enthuse people to be security conscious. Because nothing significant has occurred in the U.S. since 9/11, many people have become complacent.

Could you explain what the STAT curriculum will consist of?
CSS is creating a DVD that will present a scenario in which terrorists board a school bus and take the children hostage. It’s being filmed in Houston and should be completed shortly.

The DVD will have interludes in which the viewers discuss how they would handle the situation. The point of the training is to confront the question: What would you do if this happened on one of your buses? We want every single level of school transportation, from district administrators to transportation directors to shop supervisors to drivers, to go through this training so they’ll be prepared in case it does happen.

Is there anything else you’re working on?
Yes, we’re also preparing a Web-based program on school bus security that will be geared toward specific groups of people, such as drivers or garage technicians. We’ll be attending five pupil transportation conferences this year to explain how to use the DVD and the Web-based program. There will also be a train-the-trainer program to facilitate groups watching the DVD.

Most of the TSA’s focus seems to be on airline security. Where does school transportation fit into the larger TSA security picture?
Unfortunately, this is correct — most of TSA’s focus is on airline security, even though we have pipeline, railroad, mass transit, highway and motor carrier — including school buses and motorcoaches — modes that have separate offices and are continuously working to improve security in other modes of transportation.

Unfortunately, the trucking, motorcoach and school transportation industries are very different from the aviation industry in that there are thousands more operating units than there are airlines. Additionally, government regulations vary widely with these other modes. Therefore, it is harder to know how many companies are operating, what types of operations they have and how to get in touch with the principals in case there is a threat to them.

What organizations is the TSA working with in the school bus industry?
We are working with the three main associations — NAPT [National Association for Pupil Transportation], NSTA [National School Transportation Association] and NASDPTS [National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services]. We will probably be contacting some local school districts to ask if they would like us to conduct a Corporate Security Review on their operations.

Do you need more input from the industry?
We maintain contact with the three associations and try to send someone to the major conferences. However, our staff is small, with only four of us, and we need to initiate the contacts with the industry; otherwise, we would be overwhelmed.

If the TSA uncovered a general or specific threat against a school bus, how would it relay that information to school bus operators?
If a threat were made against a school bus or school district, we would call our contact at NASDPTS and send out an alert to the entire school transportation industry and provide any intelligence information that we could. Presently, we are trying to have key personnel obtain security clearances in order to share intelligence information with them.

In your opinion, what are the key vulnerabilities of school buses?
School buses are vulnerable because they have set routes and adhere to those routes on set days at set times. There is no randomness to the operation.

Also, they are extremely vulnerable because of the children that they carry. No one (regardless of whether you are a parent or not) wants to see or hear about children being hurt or killed.

Two more vulnerabilities are that there are so many of them and that they are operating in thousands of locations. It is hard to secure thousands of vehicles in thousands of places.

Do you have any sense of how successful the roll-out of the School Bus Watch program has been?
I am aware of the School Bus Watch program, and I know that the industry is enthusiastic about it. We are also enthusiastic about this program and believe that it complements whatever else we are going to provide to the school transportation industry. Hopefully, the industry will soon be getting the attention it needs and deserves.

Related Topics: school bus security, TSA

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