Wildfires in Florida occur at all times of the year. From Jan. 1 to 29, 2012, the Florida Forest Service reported 402 wildfires in the state. Combine smoke from the wildfires and early morning water vapor and “super-fog” is created, which produces zero visibility over roadways.
On Jan. 25, in DeLand, Fla., Volusia County Schools’ student transportation services began just like any other morning. At 5 a.m., technicians began to open the garage, bus operators and attendants were proceeding with the pre-trip inspection of their school buses, and dispatch was preparing for the morning shift as the lead driver trainer prepared the morning coverage. But when 5:30 came, employees saw super-fog moving in over the parked school buses across the compound, and in a matter of minutes there was zero visibility. They said it was the most surreal experience they have seen — almost like from a movie. Confusion, questions and concerns began.
Transportation at a stand-still
Due to zero visibility, bus operators did not want to drive. They raised questions such as, “This is my commercial driver’s license, my livelihood — is the district going to be responsible if I get in an accident, ticketed or hurt someone?” And, “Can I refuse to drive without getting into trouble?” All are valid and very important questions.
The dispatcher contacted me at 6 a.m. and explained the situation with the smoke and fog. I advised the dispatcher to have the bus operators decrease their speed, proceed with caution and ensure their strobe lights were activated. Dispatch had already advised the bus operators of this, and they were still hesitant about driving. I was told, “You need to be here to understand; it’s like nothing I have ever seen.”
I assessed the situation: You have students waiting for their school bus on the side of the road, and you have buses you can’t move out of the compound due to zero visibility. But if I can just get them down the road, visibility should get better.
Responding as a team
The call was made to have the technicians from the garage convoy all buses traveling south out of the terminal together, and the lead driver trainer in another county vehicle would convoy all school buses traveling west out of the terminal together. The idea was to keep the school buses together until they could get down the road for better visibility, as the super-fog only affected certain areas. Operators and attendants had to feel their way through the compound to their school buses, as you could not even see your hand in front of your face. Once everyone was prepared to leave together, the convoy took place and I was en route to the compound.
We encountered medical conditions with our employees from the smoke. One operator with an asthmatic condition had to leave because she became ill. One attendant left the terminal after the morning shift and had to go to a hospital for a breathing treatment. We were limited on face masks to provide to our employees, but those we knew who have asthma were given a face mask for protection.
Super-fog took place for two mornings due to a fire located near the compound. The second day, visibility conditions at the terminal were better; however, down the road, we encountered super-fog grounding a high school bus for two hours and preventing the elementary and middle school buses from entering the area. We were able to contact parents via telephone to inform them that the school buses were not going to be able to run in their area due to zero visibility. We also said that a list of students affected by this would be sent to the school to excuse their tardiness in case the parents took them into school, and we assured them we would be able to bring them home. Parents were very accommodating and understanding.
Due to the seriousness of this event, an “after action” report was written. It was decided that a super-fog procedure would be made for the protection of our employees and students, and it would entail a “pre-warning.” The pre-warning will be a letter to parents/guardians at the beginning of each school year advising them that if we should ever encounter a super-fog condition, they will be notified by an automated telephone message to inform them if Volusia County will be delaying or canceling the morning pickup because of zero visibility in the area.
School buses are the safest means of transportation for our students. It’s the district’s responsibility to ensure they only operate on public roadways when it is safe to do so.
How would you handle a similar situation? Are you prepared for super-fog? These are realities in our business and require pre-planning. Ask yourself, “What would I do?” Plan, communicate, practice, then practice again.
Nicole Miller is the area operations manager at Volusia County Schools’ student transportation services department. She oversees 42 school bus routes, manages 72 employees and serves 13 schools.