STAFFORD COUNTY, Va. — A burning school bus is one of the last things most drivers would want to see, but a recent training exercise here used that very sight to highlight the importance of evacuation training.
Barry Sudduth, executive director of fleet and transportation services for Stafford County Public Schools, told SBF that news of recent school bus fires around the country — including a fatal blaze in Iowa in December — prompted his plan to bring the issue before his drivers and monitors at their spring in-service training.
Sudduth shared his idea with the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department, noting that the school district had an obsolete bus at its disposal.
“I wanted to use it for a training exercise,” Sudduth said. “My goal … was to show how quickly a school bus will go up in flames.”
Before burning the bus, the fire department’s training division developed a pertinent presentation to give to the school bus drivers. Sudduth said the presentation covered “the basics on what to do and what not to do in a fire” as well as specifics on evacuating school buses.”
The training event took place on April 16 at one of Stafford County’s elementary schools that is adjacent to fairgrounds. On the previous day, the organizers had sent out notifications to alert the public about what would be taking place, to prevent any passersby from panicking.
For the demonstration portion of the training, firefighters ignited a bale of hay in front of the bus, which had its tires removed so they wouldn't blow off. The vehicle didn’t take long to succumb to the flames.
“It was about three minutes before [the bus] was fully engulfed,” Sudduth said.
The spectacle made quite an impression on Stafford County’s school bus staff — in a constructive way.
“For the next week, drivers were stopping me on the lot or coming in to see me,” Sudduth said. “I’ve never had that kind of response from a training before.”
The consensus was that the exercise gave the drivers a renewed sense of vigilance — they saw how critical it is that students know what to do and where all of the exits are in case of a fire or other emergency.
Virginia requires school districts to conduct school bus evacuation drills with students twice per year: one in the first semester, and one in the second semester. But Sudduth said that the bus burn prompted many of his drivers to review evacuation plans with their passengers the next day, and witnessing the demonstration may add more urgency to the annual drills.
One of Stafford County Public Schools’ media classes shot video of the event, so the footage can be used for future training sessions without having to burn another bus.
Encouraged by the results of the event, Sudduth saw an opportunity to take the concept to a broader audience. Sudduth is also the current president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), and he shared the idea with the NAPT staff.
Now, planning is underway for a live-action event that will take place during NAPT’s annual conference in Kansas City, Missouri, this fall. Lee's Summit R-7 School District will host the program, which will demonstrate various emergency situations to illustrate their impact on student evacuations.
Executive Director Mike Martin said that NAPT is still working on the logistics, but the plan includes burning three different buses. The live-action event is slated for the Saturday of the conference, Oct. 27.
NAPT has held similarly eye-catching events in past years. Those have included school bus crisis response demonstrations by law enforcement, a simulated school bus-train crash, and blowing up a school bus for security awareness training.
For more information on NAPT's 2018 conference, go to www.naptconference.org.