Emergency Response: The First 5 Minutes

Michael P. Dallessandro
Posted on September 1, 2007

As a child growing up during the Cold War, I participated in my share of air raid drills. When the siren would sound, we crawled under our desks or moved quickly and quietly into the hall and leaned face-first against lockers, our heads covered by our arms.

Looking back from an emergency services standpoint, those drills were actually quite ridiculous. They almost ensured that in the event of an actual attack, hundreds of children would be buried alive by rubble, as opposed to having a fighting chance outside on the lawn.

As time passed and our world changed, these types of drills ended. I am in full agreement that, unfortunately, in our post-9/11 world, we will probably never go without anti-terrorism preparation. In our efforts to maintain the perfect balance, we will have to include anti-terrorism training in addition to the basics in school bus emergencies.

With 23 years of emergency services experience under my belt, I can understand committing to this type of training. However, it is my professional opinion that while we are committing time to this “new” type of training, we are doing it at the expense of other important training, such as handling school bus accidents and emergencies.

Statistically, our staff members are far more likely to deal with accidents, fires or medical emergencies than situations of violence or terrorism. The purpose of this article is to provide you with some key talking points for your next training session or department memo to remind drivers and monitors of what to do during the first five minutes of most emergencies.

The actions of a school employee during the first five minutes of an emergency affect whether the incident becomes rapidly worse or improves. As school officials, we spend considerable amounts of time drafting emergency management and disaster plans, but in most cases, after the initial response, most situations will become law enforcement or fire department matters. However, during the first five minutes, we are truly on our own.

Remain calm
Oftentimes, this is easier said than done. Your staff of drivers, monitors, mechanics and office professionals must remain calm at all times during an emergency, but most importantly during the first five minutes. Students will be looking to your staff for leadership and guidance, and a complete staff meltdown will only lead to a complete student meltdown. Students must know it is going to be OK.

Gather info quickly
During the initial moments of any emergency, your staff must gather pertinent data about the incident at hand. Your staff will have to use this information to make decisions about what to do, whether there is a fire, accident or natural disaster. Secondly, they will have to make a quick and accurate radio or cell phone report to your base to get assistance and activate 911 services.

Get help
You do not need to be a certified emergency care provider to render vital care — you simply need to be able to recognize when care is needed. Otherwise untrained individuals who immediately activate 911 services have saved many lives. Your drivers and monitors should know that getting help is a form of rendering aid and an important step in the early stages of an incident.

When calling 911, your staff should know not to waste time. An emergency evacuation may be required. The caller should be prepared to give the bus number, the exact location of the incident, information on the possibility of injuries and any other hazards that could confront emergency responders.

The caller should also be careful to not give detailed information about students. Many community members follow law enforcement radio scanners closely and there is no need to create chaos in the area as a result of careless radio transmissions. From an administrative perspective, there should be a standing policy that any vehicle not involved in an emergency incident should go to radio silence until requested to respond or communicate unless these other units have their own emergency. Unnecessary radio chatter from uninvolved units trying to assist can only complicate the first five minutes.

Evacuate or not?
Moving a bus immediately following an accident is a topic of regular discussion with drivers and monitors that should be reviewed often. Whenever possible, vehicles should not be moved. However, if vehicles must be moved due to further danger, risk of a secondary accident or when directed by law enforcement, the exact location of all involved vehicles should be clearly documented.

In a situation where there is a risk of fire or explosion, this is a “no brainer.” However, there are situations where the environment outside the bus may be more dangerous than the environment inside the bus. The best way to deal with this is to have honest discussions with your staff during training sessions.

Tabletop training can be done by arranging matchbox cars, buses, fire engines and model trains on a small-scale map of streets, rail crossings, intersections and buildings found in your community. Staging bus incidents with the toys can provide hours of valuable training and dialogue.

Protect the scene
Whatever the emergency, staff should know exactly what to do to protect the scene. This can be done through a hands-on training situation staged in your garage parking lot. Your staff will remember far more if they actually practice activating four-way flashers, exiting the vehicle in the safety of your lot and properly placing reflectors or reflective triangles as if they were on an actual road. When was the last time your staff practiced protecting the scene?

Focus on the kids
It is a natural reaction to want to ensure other parties involved in a school bus emergency are cared for, but school bus drivers must focus their attention on their passengers until qualified emergency services arrive.

Drivers and monitors should use the precious first minutes of an incident to account for passengers. Emergency care providers will need accurate student information upon arrival, including seating locations, names and the correct number of students on the vehicle. Drivers and monitors, despite a possible lack of emergency first aid training, should take every step necessary to prevent further injury to students and to reduce the potential for loss of life until help arrives.

People at the scene may immediately rush to the bus to try to render aid. Drivers and monitors should make every effort to maintain order and never release students until school district officials or emergency care providers arrive.

In addition, special attention should be paid to any person at the scene who could be a potential witness. As soon as emergency care professionals are caring for the passengers, drivers should point out witnesses to police so they can attempt to get statements about the incident.

Work with investigators
One of the most important practices you can speak to your staff about is to avoid making any statements about a school bus-related incident to the media or the general public. Drivers and monitors may feel they are doing a good job by speaking their mind or making statements that they may believe to be true at the time; however, professional investigators may gather contrary evidence. When the time is right, your staff will get their opportunity to speak with school officials, union representatives and other investigators. Any statement made during the heat of the battle or while under severe emotional distress can complicate the quest for actual facts and place the district or carrier in a poor light from a public relations standpoint.


Related Topics: emergency planning

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