LA CROSSE, Wis. — School transportation staff and students here took part in a school bus-train crash training with multiple first responder agencies last week.
Mike Freybler, the transportation manager for the School District of La Crosse, told SBF that this was the first year the city and county of La Crosse partnered with the district to conduct their annual safety drills and evacuation training.
“They [the county and the city of La Crosse] decided that this was a good scenario for bus-train accidents because of the amount of buses we send out and the amount of train tracks we have in the area,” Freybler said. “We basically used it as training for us to test our procedures and how we go about handling a situation like that.”
Before the training, the district met with officials from two local hospitals, the La Crosse Police Department, and the La Crosse Fire Department, to confirm details of the training and who would be involved.
The training event took place on Oct. 10 at the La Crosse County Fire Department training site on Isle Le Plume. The premise of the scenario was that students were on a school bus when the driver has a medical emergency while approaching a railroad crossing, causing the bus to crash into a tanker car.
Scott Johnson, the safety coordinator for the School District of La Crosse, said the student actors on the bus, mostly from Central High School, were to act out injuries, as their "parents" — volunteer actors from one of the local hospitals — and first responders arrived to the scene.
“We were able to account for our students, use the accountability process here,” Johnson said. “We did find that communication was a little lacking, so we’re going to look into maybe using two-way radios or command radios.”
All of the agencies involved in the scenario held a debrief after the training to discuss outcomes and what could be changed.
The overall consensus for the district was that the exercise gave them insight on how they could improve their reunification efforts post-evacuation.
Initially, the district’s plan for reunification was that all of the students who were injured in the crash would be transported to nearby hospitals, while the students who were not seriously injured would be put back on a bus and transported to the district’s administrative center for reunification.
However, Freybler said that quickly changed when one student pointed out that it would not be ideal for the district to send another bus after students had just experienced a major busing accident.
“That’s something that we overlooked and took for granted,” Freybler said. “We need to send vans and minivans that aren’t going to bring any more trauma to these students.”
GO Riteway, the transportation company the district contracts their buses with, offered to dispatch their 10-passenger vans and some minivans to transport students during reunification.
Freybler said the district runs about 70 bus routes and services 15 schools and sites with GO Riteway buses.
While this is the first school bus-related training led by La Crosse area first responders, Freybler said he hopes the district can be a part of more training exercises in the future, including a possible a mock school-shooting training planned for next year.