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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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Tsunamis strike quickly
In Hawaii, hurricanes can cause untold damage to property, but few lives are lost because the storms are tracked for several days prior to their landing on the islands. But local tsunamis (tidal waves), can develop and strike within 5 to 10 minutes. "This means that we have to evacuate schools close to the beaches rather quickly," says Melvin Seo, administrator for student transportation and safety at Hawaii’s Department of Education. Instead of using school buses to evacuate the 15 schools situated close enough to the shoreline to be endangered, safety officials decided to have the children walk to higher ground. "One of the things we’ve learned is to minimize the number of vehicles on the road," Seo says. In 1986, a tsunami warning issued in the early afternoon caused gridlock on the local highways, which have few secondary roads. "Had a large wave actually arrived, we would have had some real tragedies."

Living in a nuclear family
Most school districts needn’t worry about nuclear disaster, but Monroe Public Schools in Monroe, Mich., doesn’t have that luxury. It lies within a 10-mile radius of the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant — called the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ). As such, the district needs to be prepared to evacuate its students should there be an accident at the plant, which is operated by Detroit Edison. Transportation Director Kim Hooper says the Monroe district’s evacuation plan calls for moving 9,000 students to a community college outside the EPZ. From there, the students would be transferred to a high school in a neighboring school district and housed in a gymnasium and auditorium until their parents could pick them up. The plan, which is coordinated by the county’s emergency management agency, is updated yearly to account for changes in school population numbers and locations of wheelchair-bound students. "We’re confident with this plan as much as with any other plan that could be developed," Hooper says. "It’s certainly better than not having a plan at all." With 75 school buses at his disposal, Hooper believes he can perform the evacuation in three legs, possibly two. The schools closest to the plant would be evacuated first, followed by the outer schools. The plan has been tested in a "paper exercise," but Hooper knows that a real evacuation could be much different. "There’s the unknown factor," he says. "For example, we don’t know what the roads would be like, especially if there’s panic in the community. We’re not naive enough to believe that it’s going to be as easy as one-two-three." Hooper says parents are encouraged not to pick up their children at schools in the event of an emergency because the extra traffic could cause delays and clog school driveways. To remind parents of what to do in an emergency, the school district and Detroit Edison officials send fliers on a regular basis. "The biggest thing with nuclear power is people not knowing what to expect," Hooper says. "If they don’t panic, we can serve the community better." Detroit Edison spokesman Guy Cerullo says there has not been a major incident at the power plant since it went online in 1988. He says a community evacuation would be ordered only if a plant emergency reached the fourth level, which is called a "general emergency." The first three levels are an "unusual event," an "alert" and a "site area emergency," which would only affect the area within the plant perimeter.

How to take charge
To assess your preparedness for disaster response, take the following steps:

1. List all potential disasters.

2. For each disaster, determine your vulnerability and identify emergency plans at the department and school district levels.

3. Evaluate the feasibility of each of these plans based on available resources and training.

4. Determine whether plans can be tested with drills, tabletop exercises or full-scale simulations.

5. Test and review the effectiveness of the plans.

6. If the plans prove to be ineffective, consult with your school district’s emergency management team or contact local, state or federal emergency planning agencies.

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