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October 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to Navigate Your Fleet Through Disasters

Coordinated plans — rehearsed in tabletop and actual simulations — ensure that school bus operators can handle nature's nastiest surprises.

by Steve Hirano, Executive Editor

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By definition, you cannot "expect the unexpected." That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t be fully prepared for low-probability events, especially natural disasters. When disaster strikes, the first priority for school bus operators is the safety of their passengers. That sounds simple and direct, but a lack of foresight can turn a disaster into, well, a disaster. That’s because many people believe that common sense, above all else, is what’s required in a crisis. But some emergency planning experts disagree. "Common sense is a good thing, except that in a crisis, you get rattled and common sense goes away," says Karleen Berra, vice president of Berra Engineering, a Houston-based consulting firm that creates crisis management plans for industry and public agencies, including school districts. "If you can lay out ahead of time what common sense would dictate, then you’re much better off," Berra says. "It’s hard to think it through when you’re in the actual crisis." Berra recommends that school districts, and transportation departments, have written plans that can be quickly referenced and absorbed during a disaster. The best method of imparting this information, she says, is through easy-to-read flow charts. Wading through gray text-only pages when the crisis hits can be difficult and time-consuming, she says. Having a plan — and knowing how to implement it — can be the difference between effective crisis management and chaos, whether you’re dealing with a fire, flood, earthquake, tornado or other disaster. However, the ability to improvise solutions is also a critical factor in the successful handling of disasters. Michael Rea, director of the West County Transportation Agency in Sebastopol, Calif., which provides transportation for a dozen school districts in Northern California’s Sonoma County, believes that good common sense is a valuable commodity in a crisis. "You can write all the policies and procedures that you want, but invariably, you’re going to have a disaster that’s going to have elements that no written plan is going to cover," Rea says. "You need to know what your resources are, what you can expect to accomplish and what you cannot reasonably accomplish." What, then, is the most effective method of handling a disaster? The answer is to have a plan — but also to be prepared to improvise if necessary. The following are examples of school districts that face a variety of disasters and how they prepare and cope with them.

Driving a rocky road
Southern California is famous for its Hollywood celebrities — and its natural disasters. Earthquakes, wildfires and landslides plague the region on a regular basis. It’s not surprising, then, that school transportation operations need to be prepared for nearly any eventuality. At Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the transportation department maintains a constant vigil for natural disasters. "We have them every year," says Neal Abramson, the district’s assistant transportation director. Being prepared for them requires "a lot of planning and the cooperation of many different agencies," he adds. One of the main concerns of the school district is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the main thoroughfare between Santa Monica and Malibu. Because PCH is frequently closed for fires, floods and mudslides, every school bus and every school in the affected areas is equipped with two-way radios. "Also, each radio has a battery back-up and the fire department has access to our frequency if necessary," Abramson says. Each school site also has a disaster-ready team and stores enough food and water for all students and staff for at least three days. The disaster teams receive biannual training from local fire and police departments on emergency response, including triage and rescue/recovery. "We have annual drills that include the complete evacuation of two of our schools to off-site locations," Abramson says. "We use every bus in the fleet and then again with just a few buses." Drivers play a key role in disaster planning as well. Abramson says all drivers know every canyon road and alternate route in the area. Complacency, Abramson says, is the enemy when it comes to disaster preparedness. "Our manuals are updated whenever necessary," he says. "There is much more to do, but we learn more each year."

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