School bus manufacturers Blue Bird Corp. and Micro Bird recently celebrated a successful 10-year partnership. Having joined forces in 2009 to focus on the Type A bus market, they have had extensive involvement in enhancing special-needs student transportation safety.
Here, John Barrington, director of product planning for Blue Bird, discusses embracing alternative fuels for lower emissions and a higher-quality ride for special-needs students, customizing buses to meet a variety of special needs, and emerging issues such as an increase in the use of WC19-compliant wheelchairs.
Q: What have been Blue Bird’s recent special-needs innovations?
A: One of our best innovations has been our dedication to the use of alternative fuels in school buses. Propane and gasoline engines are quieter, and their operation, coupled with lower emissions, translates to a better ride experience for special-needs students. The advent of the electric powertrain in school buses and its continued adoption will only enhance special-needs student transportation.
Q: How do these innovations come about? Are they solely driven by customer demand or some other means, like federal requirements?
Both. Regulation at the state and federal level drives some of it, but the most powerful force for innovation is from our customers. Our dealers and their customers provide great insight into what is needed to transport special-needs students. Special-needs student transportation professionals are passionate about what they do, and they drive much of this conversation from the local level.
Q: How does Blue Bird work with sister company Micro Bird, which manufactures Type A buses, on special-needs issues?
One of Blue Bird’s great special-needs transportation assets is its partnership with Micro Bird. The Type A school bus has long been a common platform for special-needs transportation, so Micro Bird’s experience gives Blue Bird additional insight into the needs of the marketplace. They maintain their own skilled engineering resources, and the ability to leverage their expertise as a complement to our own is invaluable.
Q: Does accommodating special needs come down to the type of bus, e.g., Type A vs. Type C, or do special-needs features carry across all bus types?
Historically speaking, the Type A and Type C have had a larger presence as special-needs platforms, but today, all types are required to accommodate the special-needs transportation market.
Q: What are the biggest challenges with accommodating special needs on school buses?
There is no “one size fits all” solution to accommodation. For example, the technology around special-needs mobility devices has advanced significantly. The proliferation of specialized and very customized wheelchairs, which makes tremendous contributions to user independence, also presents a complex challenge for vehicle manufacturers. We must be diligent in designing our products to deal with this complexity.
Q: Does Blue Bird custom-build buses for students with special needs?
The foundation of what we do is customization of the school bus. Blue Bird currently has nearly 1,000 active seating plans for special-needs units. We also have options tailored to meet a variety of requirements.
There is some limitation to what we can do, but the bottom line is that our number-one objective is the safe transportation of all students regardless of their needs, and we work hard every day to provide products that accomplish that goal.
Q: What are some emerging special-needs issues and how is Blue Bird addressing them?
The growing use of WC19-compliant wheelchairs has been ongoing for the past two decades and will continue. WC18 implementation has impacted not only what products we use, but our designs as well. The interest in onboard fire suppression systems is another feature we are studying. While not specifically a special-needs system, their use on special-needs school buses can be a real safety enhancement.
Blue Bird addresses these issues by working closely with its suppliers as it designs its products and adopts optional equipment. In addition, our engineering staff stays active in researching requirements and trends to stay as current as possible.