Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Since 9/11, homeland security has largely been associated in the public mind with terrorist threats. But, broadly defined — and with the exception of Noah’s Ark — homeland security is a responsibility that the school transportation community has stepped up to and relished as a civic duty throughout its history.
Trained school bus drivers behind the wheel are frequently responding to tornado and hurricane evacuation missions, including transport of residents, prisoners and armed deputies as they did in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some drivers have given their life for the security of the homeland’s children, as Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr. did in Dale County, Ala., while shielding young passengers on his school bus from a gunman in January.
Poland’s act of heroism brought back memories of the 1976 hijacking of school bus driver Frank Edward Ray and his 26 child passengers in Chowchilla, Calif. Through their ingenuity, they all survived a 16-hour ordeal.
Security for the public
Then there’s the heartwarming action taken recently by Beverly Wetzel and her drivers. Wetzel is transportation supervisor at Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools in Bellbrook, Ohio, and west regional director for the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation.
“One Saturday, I heard tones for an emergency call to the Sugarcreek Fire Department from our local rehab center for a smell of smoke and fire,” Wetzel says. “They had to evacuate the nursing/rehab center, and it was very cold outside. They were talking about how cold it was for the elderly and sick patients, so I started calling drivers. I sent my wheelchair buses over there to house people from the cold while firemen evacuated and checked out the building. We kept the patients warm and safe until they cleared the building.”
The elderly and sick were kept warm and secure in their homeland, thanks to this caring action.
In Colorado, a driver from Denver Public Schools stuck her neck out — and used her big yellow bus — to shield a disabled car and its driver from being struck by oncoming freeway traffic (see story here).
After her quick reaction to the immediate danger, bus driver Susan Munoz radioed emergency personnel, then set out flares and cones. The man she protected called her “my guardian angel.”
Internally, the pupil transportation industry recognizes its myriad contributions to rescue efforts — what can be considered homeland security — but we don’t read or hear much about them in the mass media.
And we aren’t likely to hear of the fearless commitments transporters and drivers make in the name of homeland security unless an event actually happens. We talk about how many students we transport in a day, but where are the numbers about how many pupil transporters are on standby around the country, willing to be there for the rescue, “just in case”?
Nuclear power emergency
While we don’t hear much about the role of the school bus and drivers in the event of a nuclear power plant radiation emergency, 98 drivers for the Tangipahoa Parish School System in Amite, La., are voluntarily signed up to help move people to safety, should such an event occur.
Steve Vales, transportation coordinator and systems analyst for the school district, sheds light on this aspect of homeland security. It’s an area, Vales notes, that is “not restricted to just one type of emergency,” meaning that his drivers need to be trained to respond to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and radiation events.
The basic premise, Vales says, is that “it takes organization. You have to have your training and your team in place.”
Tangipahoa Parish sits about 50 miles from the Entergy-operated Waterford 3 nuclear power facility near Taft, La., and is in a section of the state better known for the TV reality series “Swamp People.”
A long-standing plan in place between the school district and Entergy works like this: Should there be a siren alert by Entergy and a follow-up communication that it is necessary to move people away from an event, those drivers who have signed up would be activated. They would have been briefed on the plan at their yearly in-service training and, if contacted during an event, would drive their buses to the edge of the evacuation zone and follow the direction of Entergy and local emergency preparedness officials.
Whether to proceed to a designated pickup point is at the discretion of the driver.
“If a driver does not feel comfortable going into the evacuation area, a qualified substitute will be provided,” the plan states. Drivers would evacuate people to pre-designated areas that would serve as temporary housing. A directive from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP) advises drivers that in the case of the most severe kind of radiation emergency, “You may have to protect yourself.”
Despite the potential for danger, Vales says that “it doesn’t take any effort to find drivers to help.” Some drivers for the parish are owner-operators, and vehicle insurance during the period of evacuation activity would be provided by Entergy. The company would also pay those drivers a $1,000 flat fee per trip or $10 per hour plus $1 per mile, whichever is greater.
Under a cooperative program with the OHSEP, drivers using parish-owned buses would be paid on a scale equivalent to a field trip.
Floods and tornadoes
As a result of Hurricane Katrina, Vales notes, “the magnitude of planning is significantly more than in the past — coordinating services, improving and putting more communications systems in place to communicate with other agencies in the area.”
In flooded areas, drivers are instructed that they “should not navigate a road where they cannot see the road,” Vales says. “We don’t want drivers navigating in moving water. … The bus has a large bearing surface and can be swamped by moving water. That may mean turning the bus around and finding an alternate route.”
People in areas where flooding is prevalent are “well aware of what the hazards are … they come out to meet the bus.”
Usually, there is advance warning of flooding; not so with tornadoes. Standard practice when a tornado is sighted is to seek emergency shelter for passengers.
“Do not attempt to outrun a tornado in the school bus; instead, abandon it for a strong building,” drivers are advised.
Then, the unexpected
Amid all of the training that exists, how do you train for the unexpected, and do you have the infrastructure in place to expect the unexpected? Under what conditions should a driver not attempt a rescue?
These are some of the questions raised by George Horne, a transportation consultant who retired as transportation director after 22 years at the Jefferson Parish Public School System in Harvey, La.
Horne tells of a storm during which a driver, seeing high water ahead, got off the bus and carried a student out of harm’s way — but he left students on the bus while doing this.
“What if the bus had floated away?” Horne asks.
He also wonders whether, in 2013, drivers are being adequately trained to pay attention to what’s happening at stops: noticing occupied vehicles parked nearby, other changes in the environment near stops, changes in the demeanor of student passengers, etc. Where does it end? you might ask.Example of the unexpected: Waco
“We need to have a school bus in front of the Waco Police Department within 45 minutes,” the officer advised Kennington, who was transportation director at Waco Independent School District at the time and now heads up Innovative Transportation Solutions.
A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent in full gear was waiting at the police station and described the plan. Kennington would drive the bus to the final checkpoint outside the compound, and then the agent would drive the bus in to pick up the children.
“I need to know everything you can tell me about the school bus,” the agent said, and Kennington began to talk him through it as they drove to the site.
Unfortunately, before they got to the compound, Koresh changed his mind and would not release the children. The standoff continued for days, ending with the fire that engulfed the compound and resulted in many deaths.
But that wasn’t the end of the transportation story. Some time later, the ATF relied on school buses and drivers to transport agents to and from the airport when all of its agents that were involved in the incident were brought back to visit the site, in an effort to bring closure to the event and emotionally move on in their lives.
Trained to anticipate, respond
So, school transporters are expected to master their vehicles to provide security in any number of natural disasters, community emergencies and catastrophic events. On top of that, there’s an everyday commitment to passenger security.
How many communities across the country recognize the breadth and depth of pupil transportation training? There’s the skill of driving safely, the act of passenger protection and the tact of managing behaviors. There’s CPR, oxygen tanks, tracheotomies and administering live-saving medications. There’s car seat securement, securing wheelchairs in a vehicle, securing a passenger in a wheelchair, wheelchair lift operation and emergency evacuation techniques — for passengers of all sizes, all behaviors and all physical conditions.
Vales of the Tangipahoa Parish School System says that his job, when called upon, “is to get people out of harm’s way.”
Of her team’s gesture to provide warmth and shelter for nursing home evacuees, Wetzel of Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools says: “I’m sure many school districts are doing this. We really aren’t special.”
Special or not, maybe the pupil transportation industry should toot its horn a bit more about the vital role we play in homeland security.
Roseann Schwaderer consults on state and local conference planning and offers editing/writing services. She is known for her work on special-needs transportation conferences and is editor and publisher of Legal Routes, a bimonthly report on pupil transportation law and compliance written by Peggy Burns.
Balancing customer service with security risk
Here’s a question for these unsettling times that a Kansas City regional offshoot of the Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation (KCMAPT) is grappling with: “How does a school district maintain an environment of stellar customer service while ensuring the highest security possible on its school buses?”
To help find approaches and answers to that balancing act, KCMAPT has been meeting with stakeholders that include school district transportation administrators and managers, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representatives, local law enforcement officials, vendors and taxi cab company officials. (Kansas City Public Schools transports around 300 children per year under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.)
Patrick Kneib, president of the group and director of transportation for Kansas City Public Schools, offers these examples of differences in approaches taken by two school districts within his region:
One district imposes a 25-foot “bubble” around its buses. Parents, guardians, non-students and others are prohibited from approaching buses within that zone.
Another district won’t address or talk to anyone at the bus service door. Individuals may approach at the driver’s side “if it’s safe to.”
Kneib says that his district benefitted from a base assessment provided by the local TSA surface transportation agents when they were brought in last summer to assess the district’s vulnerability to threats. TSA, he notes, has been “very good at offering resources, training, information and help” and providing referrals to other experts.
While KCMAPT continues to search for answers to the balance between customer service and security, Kneib notes that while approaches may vary from district to district, they will to some degree hinge on legal interpretations of custody and care.
For instance, his district has a policy of not refusing entry to a student at a bus stop. So what do you do when a student is not an authorized rider?
Kneib says, for example: “a kid at a bus stop, it’s not their school, it’s not their route. It’s about how much jurisdiction a district wants to take. … If the kid is refused and something happens, what is the liability? We’re trying to work through that as a regional group.”
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