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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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No hurry for hurricanes
Preparing for a hurricane is quite a bit different than it is for earthquakes, mudslides and fires, mainly because there’s plenty of advance notice. Hurricane Bonnie, which hammered North Carolina in late August, was tracked closely for several days before it reached land. Fortunately, it proved to be gentler than many meteorologists predicted, but the potential for damage and casualties was high. At Onslow County Schools, a few miles up the coast from hard-hit Wilmington, Transportation Director Jeff Smith was better prepared for Hurricane Bonnie than Hurricane Fran, which ravaged the area in 1996. "Hurricane Fran was a good lesson for us," he says. Smith is a member of the county’s emergency management disaster team. He met with fellow emergency officials three days before the hurricane reached land and every day thereafter. By the time Fran arrived, Smith had made sure that all of his approximately 200 school buses were sheltered at least six miles inland. "We bunched them up together, and none were damaged," he says. During Hurricane Fran, the transportation department had a large role in emergency response. The district’s four fueling trucks, which can store 1,400 gallons each, were used to deliver diesel to Army National Guard generators and local municipalities that used generators to keep their sewer systems functioning. For Hurricane Bonnie, county officials prepared their fuel supplies before the storm arrived. Once the worst of Fran had passed, four Onslow school buses were used to transport coastal residents back to their homes. They had been evacuated about six miles inland to emergency shelters.Overall, Smith says the buses ferried about 1,000 residents. Smith says the district uses seven coordinators, one for each high school, to contact drivers in case of an emergency. Occasionally, these coordinators have to round up the drivers for early dismissal. A snowstorm, for example, might cause schools to close early. "When we get snow, it’s a disaster," Smith says, laughing. Anticipating this scenario, Smith puts his coordinators on alert status, meaning they should stay by the phone and be prepared to act quickly. To keep up with weather conditions, Smith monitors the Internet, both at home and at work. "A lot of times I’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to check the weather [on the Internet] if I know the night before they’re expecting inclement weather," he says. In Palm Beach County School District in Florida, school buses are occasionally used to evacuate coastal residents, especially those in retirement homes, in the event of an approaching hurricane. To make sure that buses are available, they’re fueled and compounded either inside or in outside lots with adequate drainage, according to Joe Reed, assistant transportation director at Palm Beach County. The fueling is taken care of before the storm hits, because power could be knocked out for several days, Reed says.

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