Funding urged for security enhancements
Statement for the record of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways, Transit, and Pipelines, Hearing on Public Transportation Security. March 29, 2006.
We appreciate the opportunity to enter remarks into the record of the subcommittee’s hearing on public transportation security. We commend the Committee for their interest in expanding funding for security beyond the airlines and Amtrak, but are concerned that the largest mass transportation fleet in the country has been overlooked.
Each weekday more than 450,000 yellow school buses travel the nation’s roads. Our fleet is 2.5 times the size of all other forms of mass transportation — transit, intercity buses, commercial airlines and rail — combined. During the school year we make more than 50 million passenger trips daily carrying the country’s most vulnerable passengers — our children. Our exposure is far greater than public transportation’s at 32 million trips daily, yet the school bus industry has received little attention and no funding at all from the federal government.
School buses and terrorism — School buses have been targets of terrorists not only in countries such as Israel, Thailand, Yemen, but also in Canada and the U.S. So far, the attacks in this country have been domestic, but they illustrate the concerns of the industry — and indeed of the country. The most notorious case occurred 30 years ago when a gang of armed men hijacked a school bus in California, taking 26 children hostage. The men forced the children and their driver into a buried van and kept them underground for 16 hours, demanding $5 million ransom.
In 1995, a man claiming to have a bomb hijacked a school bus with 11 special needs children in Miami. Police killed the hijacker, who turned out to be unarmed.
In 1996, a 15-year-old boy commandeered a school bus in Salt Lake City and killed the driver. He later killed himself after crashing into a home.
In January 2002, a school bus driver in Pennsylvania abandoned his regular route and took 13 children on an unauthorized trip to Washington, D.C. The driver, armed with a rifle, eluded attempts to find the bus for six hours. Despite a massive search by police, the bus wasn’t found until the hijacker turned himself in.
Just this past January, an armed man hijacked a school bus in Los Angeles County, Calif., forcing the driver at gunpoint to drive 200 miles before the driver outwitted him and escaped.
The Committee knows that buses are a common target of terrorists worldwide. Buses carrying children are particularly popular targets, for there is little that human beings fear more than a threat to their children. Despite the potential for devastating results if terrorists were systematically to target school buses in this country, the federal government has not included school transportation in its efforts to provide a secure public transportation system.
School buses and security — Like public transit, school buses operate in an open environment. Routes are routinely published at the beginning of the school year and rarely change during the year. School buses make the same stops at the same time every day, making it very easy for anyone to intercept a bus. School bus stops are unprotected, and usually unattended by an adult.
School buses, by state law, cannot be locked when students are on board; therefore they are vulnerable to penetration by outsiders. School bus drivers have no shield, compartment or other protection; since they, unlike public transit or intercity bus drivers, are responsible for their passengers, they cannot be isolated from them.
School bus operations vary greatly in their sophistication and their facilities, but the majority operate from unprotected bus yards, where prior to 9/11, the biggest concern was vandalism. The number of bus fleets that are grounded during the year by vandals indicates how vulnerable the industry is to terrorists.
In many communities across the country, school buses are the only form of mass transportation available for evacuation of large populations. Security of the school transportation system is important not only to protect the students who ride buses daily, but also to ensure that we are ready and able to respond to critical incidents elsewhere in our communities. Many fleets participate in emergency planning with local government for everything from police responses to nuclear plant evacuation planning. School buses from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut played an important role in both evacuating people from the impact area in Manhattan on 9/11 and transporting critical workers into the area during the search and recovery period. This is part of a long tradition of service in times of disaster, whether natural or manmade.
Officials in New Orleans have been criticized for not incorporating the school bus fleet into their emergency plans prior to and during Hurricane Katrina. Buses that could have been used to transport residents to safety were instead trapped under water. We all are aware of the consequences in that instance of the failure to recognize the importance of the local school bus fleet.
In the fall of 2002, NSTA conducted a survey to gauge how the industry had responded to the events of 9/11. The results showed that the primary response of the members, private companies who provide school transportation under contract to public school districts, was to increase training for drivers in security awareness. Ninety percent reported two-way radio communications in their fleets, and about half have video cameras in some buses. But nearly all said there was no funding available for capital investments such as fencing and lighting for bus yards or sophisticated tracking equipment for buses.
In the past four years, our three associations have worked with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in trying to determine the security needs of the school bus industry. In 2003, NSTA published “The Top 25 Security Action Items for School Bus Operations”; more recently, NAPT developed a security assessment tool as a guide for school bus operators to improve their operations. We collaborated with TSA on a brochure for school bus drivers, and all three associations have posted security information on our websites. In addition, many of our members attended security forums at their own expense, and most are involved in their local emergency response planning activities.
Recently, the American Trucking Associations and the three national school bus associations collaborated to develop “School Bus Watch,” a training program derived from “Highway Watch.” In addition, we have been working with Consolidated Safety Services Inc. on a security awareness and training program funded by TSA, which is currently in the testing stage. While these programs provide welcome training to school transportation personnel, our industry still lags behind all other modes in asset protection. A few school districts scattered across the country have introduced GPS systems into their school buses, and some are upgrading communications. But as yet there is no consistent, coordinated effort to ensure the security of the nation’s school transportation system.