Trained school bus drivers often respond to evacuation missions. Pictured here, Houston Independent School District sent 142 buses to New Orleans to help with evacuation and relief efforts in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Since 9/11, homeland security has largely been associated in the public mind with terrorist threats. But, broadly defined — and with the exception of Noah’s Ark — homeland security is a responsibility that the school transportation community has stepped up to and relished as a civic duty throughout its history.
Trained school bus drivers behind the wheel are frequently responding to tornado and hurricane evacuation missions, including transport of residents, prisoners and armed deputies as they did in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some drivers have given their life for the security of the homeland’s children, as Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr. did in Dale County, Ala., while shielding young passengers on his school bus from a gunman in January.
Poland’s act of heroism brought back memories of the 1976 hijacking of school bus driver Frank Edward Ray and his 26 child passengers in Chowchilla, Calif. Through their ingenuity, they all survived a 16-hour ordeal.
Security for the public
Then there’s the heartwarming action taken recently by Beverly Wetzel and her drivers. Wetzel is transportation supervisor at Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools in Bellbrook, Ohio, and west regional director for the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation.
“One Saturday, I heard tones for an emergency call to the Sugarcreek Fire Department from our local rehab center for a smell of smoke and fire,” Wetzel says. “They had to evacuate the nursing/rehab center, and it was very cold outside. They were talking about how cold it was for the elderly and sick patients, so I started calling drivers. I sent my wheelchair buses over there to house people from the cold while firemen evacuated and checked out the building. We kept the patients warm and safe until they cleared the building.”
The elderly and sick were kept warm and secure in their homeland, thanks to this caring action.
In Colorado, a driver from Denver Public Schools stuck her neck out — and used her big yellow bus — to shield a disabled car and its driver from being struck by oncoming freeway traffic (see story here).
After her quick reaction to the immediate danger, bus driver Susan Munoz radioed emergency personnel, then set out flares and cones. The man she protected called her “my guardian angel.”
Internally, the pupil transportation industry recognizes its myriad contributions to rescue efforts — what can be considered homeland security — but we don’t read or hear much about them in the mass media.
And we aren’t likely to hear of the fearless commitments transporters and drivers make in the name of homeland security unless an event actually happens. We talk about how many students we transport in a day, but where are the numbers about how many pupil transporters are on standby around the country, willing to be there for the rescue, “just in case”?
Nuclear power emergency
While we don’t hear much about the role of the school bus and drivers in the event of a nuclear power plant radiation emergency, 98 drivers for the Tangipahoa Parish School System in Amite, La., are voluntarily signed up to help move people to safety, should such an event occur.
Steve Vales, transportation coordinator and systems analyst for the school district, sheds light on this aspect of homeland security. It’s an area, Vales notes, that is “not restricted to just one type of emergency,” meaning that his drivers need to be trained to respond to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and radiation events.
The basic premise, Vales says, is that “it takes organization. You have to have your training and your team in place.”
Tangipahoa Parish sits about 50 miles from the Entergy-operated Waterford 3 nuclear power facility near Taft, La., and is in a section of the state better known for the TV reality series “Swamp People.”
A long-standing plan in place between the school district and Entergy works like this: Should there be a siren alert by Entergy and a follow-up communication that it is necessary to move people away from an event, those drivers who have signed up would be activated. They would have been briefed on the plan at their yearly in-service training and, if contacted during an event, would drive their buses to the edge of the evacuation zone and follow the direction of Entergy and local emergency preparedness officials.
Whether to proceed to a designated pickup point is at the discretion of the driver.
“If a driver does not feel comfortable going into the evacuation area, a qualified substitute will be provided,” the plan states. Drivers would evacuate people to pre-designated areas that would serve as temporary housing. A directive from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP) advises drivers that in the case of the most severe kind of radiation emergency, “You may have to protect yourself.”
Despite the potential for danger, Vales says that “it doesn’t take any effort to find drivers to help.” Some drivers for the parish are owner-operators, and vehicle insurance during the period of evacuation activity would be provided by Entergy. The company would also pay those drivers a $1,000 flat fee per trip or $10 per hour plus $1 per mile, whichever is greater.
Under a cooperative program with the OHSEP, drivers using parish-owned buses would be paid on a scale equivalent to a field trip.