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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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Floods test mettle
In the wake of El Niño, many parts of the country still have unpleasant memories of powerful rains and flooding. In Northern California, the rains were heavy but were also spread out over several months, so flooding of local waterways was minimal. Still, school bus operators were forced to deal with lots of water on the road. Rea of the West County Transportation Agency says it’s important to know your drivers’ personalities during periods of heavy rain. "We have some in a disaster who want to put their cape on and drive their bus over the swollen river," Rea says, "and we have others who see a trickle across the road and they want to park the bus and wait until it’s all over." Rea says it might be wise to reassign routes based on the drivers’ confidence levels. Timid drivers, he says, will occasionally be shifted to a "dry" route if their regular route would force them to cross water on the roads. During a disaster, the agency’s school buses could be used as a backup communication system. Should there be a power outage that knocks out school site communications, a bus equipped with a two-way radio would be dispatched to each school, Rea says. That would create a communication network that could be accessed by the county’s emergency management agency.

Twisters are no game
If a school bus is driving down the road and the driver spots a tornado heading in his direction, what should he do? According to Jim Kline, transportation supervisor at Crosby Independent School District in Texas, the driver should stop the bus on the side of the road and instruct the children to crouch down below the glass level. It might make more sense to evacuate the bus and have the children hunker down in a roadside ditch, but Kline says many of the drainage ditches in his area are filled with water. "I don’t want those little ones in a deep ditch full of water," he says. The best advice, Kline says, is for the driver to stay calm. "It’s hard for someone sitting back in an office to try to tell someone driving a bus watching a tornado come at ’em what to do." In Minnesota, tornadoes are most likely to strike in May, June and July, although they can occur as early as March and as late as November. Although the state is not associated with deadly tornadoes, the danger still exists and the weather phenomenon needs to be respected. Jill Williams, safety director for Kottkes’ Bus Service in Andover, Minn., counsels the company’s approximately 140 drivers to be aware of conditions that lead to severe weather. These conditions include a dark, often greenish sky, a wall cloud, large hail and a loud roar resembling the rumble of a train. "Knowing how to recognize threatening weather, and where and when to seek shelter are key factors in ensuring the safety of the passengers," Williams says. The best shelters, she says, are schools, police and fire stations, churches, shopping malls and ditches free from trees, power lines and water. Kottkes’ has developed a severe weather evacuation plan that’s kept in the route book of every bus and is presented to the drivers during the April safety meeting. "We feel this information is invaluable to our regular route drivers, but crucial to our relief drivers who may be unfamiliar with a route," Williams says.

Tabletop lava flows
At Mission School District in British Columbia, Transportation Supervisor Tom Proud understands the importance of disaster preparedness. Proud serves as the transportation coordinator for the local emergency operations center, which conducts twice-a-year exercises for disaster preparedness. Recent exercises have included a mock volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Baker and an earthquake measuring over 7.0 on the Richter scale. In many cases, school buses are an integral part of the planning. "Most of the scenarios involve evacuating kids from one school to another," Proud explains. They might also involve using wheelchair lift-equipped school buses to evacuate retirement homes. Typically, the scenarios are "tabletop exercises" rather than simulations, but Proud says they still provide hands-on instruction that could be critical during an actual disaster. For example, during last year’s volcanic eruption scenario, called "Thunderbird 3," it was pointed out that wet towels placed over the bus’ air cleaners would keep ash spewed by the volcano from fouling the operation of the engine. "All of that kind of stuff is part of the action of the play," Proud says.

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