Careful planning can help ensure the safety of passengers with mobility challenges, sensory processing disorders, and other conditions.  -  Image: Canva

Careful planning can help ensure the safety of passengers with mobility challenges, sensory processing disorders, and other conditions.

Image: Canva

Can drivers on your district’s special-needs school bus tell where emergency exits are by seat count? Do they know a student’s seat number without checking a chart? In a smoke-filled bus, with limited visibility, drivers and attendants may need to feel their way through the bus.

During emergencies, the safety of every student aboard a school bus is critically important, and that holds true for special-needs students with mobility challenges, sensory processing disorders, or other conditions that merit careful consideration and planning to ensure their safety.

The objective of safe evacuation procedures is not only to comply with legal and ethical standards but also to foster an environment where every student, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, can feel secure in the knowledge that their school has a plan to protect them. By understanding and addressing the unique needs of these students, school transportation officials can ensure that evacuation processes are inclusive, efficient, and effective.

“In a real emergency, we generally don’t have time to think of a plan,” says Teena Mitchell, special-needs transportation coordinator for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), and a member of School Bus Fleet’s editorial advisory board. “We usually revert to what we know (our drills). Some districts elect not to include our most fragile students in drills for fear of harm or stressing students with disabilities. But in reality, our most fragile students need the most preparation. Drills allow us to make mistakes without dire consequences and give us the opportunity to correct or change our procedures to protect our students.”

Evacuation Priorities and Procedures for Special-Needs Students

Evacuating special-needs students from a school bus requires specific priorities and procedures to ensure their safety:

  1. Determine the urgency of evacuation: Assess the situation to determine if immediate evacuation is necessary. The speed of evacuation varies depending on the emergency's nature and urgency.
  2. Evacuating ambulatory students first: In a rapid evacuation scenario, it's often advisable to first evacuate students who can move independently. This helps clear the way for assisting non-ambulatory students safely and efficiently.
  3. Safe evacuation of non-ambulatory students: Use proper lifting techniques to evacuate non-ambulatory or partially ambulatory students. This may involve staff physically assisting students, ensuring their safe transfer off the bus.
  4. Know your bus lift. Know where the manual lift handle is located so you can manually lower (or float) your lift. You may have the ability to float one chair (heavy student) down the lift while you evacuate other students. It may be quicker than pulling a heavy student out of the chair. Also, if you have three students in wheelchairs and the opportunity to float only one, know which you would choose, if any. It is usually quicker to carry smaller students from the bus, while larger students may be floated on the lift or you may need to use an evacuation mat.
  5. Use of emergency equipment: Employ emergency evacuation equipment if available, like evacuation chairs or slides, to facilitate a smoother and safer process for students with mobility challenges.
  6. Designated assembly points: Once evacuated, students should gather at a predetermined safe location, such as near a tree or another identifiable object, where they can be accounted for and receive further instructions or assistance. Students with special needs may require constant supervision. Perhaps ask a bystander to stay with evacuated students while you continue to clear students off the bus.
  7. Communication and calmness: Maintain clear communication throughout the evacuation. Staff should be trained to keep a calm demeanor to help ease anxiety and confusion among students.
  8. Regular drills and training: Conduct regular emergency evacuation drills to ensure that staff and students are familiar with the evacuation process, especially catering to the needs of special-needs students. As a best practice, don’t pull fragile students from wheelchairs during drills. Instead, use an extra wheelchair with a suitable weighted “doll” to remove from the chair that the child would be removed in an actual emergency, while allowing the student to watch and become familiar with the process in case of a real emergency. In drills, transportation professionals don’t actually cut equipment, but equipment cutting should be simulated and seat-belt strap cutting should be simulated. Tip: Save damaged or expired equipment to use for training and practice cutting.
  9. Post-evacuation procedures: After evacuation, implement procedures for reunification with parents/guardians or transferring students to a safe location.

Cross-Training of Staff for Special-Needs Evacuations

Ensuring the safety of special-needs students during a school bus evacuation necessitates well-trained staff, proficient not only in their specific roles but also in the responsibilities of their colleagues.

  1. Understanding dual roles: School bus drivers and attendants should be trained in each other's roles. This includes knowledge of evacuation procedures, student-specific needs, and emergency response tactics.
  2. Emergency response skills: Staff should be adept in emergency medical response, basic first aid, and using evacuation equipment. This ensures a quick and efficient response in any situation.
  3. Communication and coordination: Training should emphasize effective communication and coordination among all staff members, which is crucial in an emergency. However, during an actual evacuation, the process should be done without talking. When a bus is filled with smoking, the act of talking could lead to smoke inhalation.
  4. Regular drills and scenario training: Implement regular drills that simulate various scenarios, including situations where either the driver or an attendant might be incapacitated, ensuring all staff members can effectively respond.
  5. Evaluation and feedback: Post-drill evaluations to provide feedback and identify areas for improvement in staff response and coordination. How many child safety restraint systems do you have on one bus? During your drills, can the driver and attendant successfully evacuate all students under two minutes?

By cross-training staff, school transportation services can create a more resilient and responsive team, ready to handle the complexities of evacuating special-needs students in various emergency scenarios.

Enhancing School Bus Safety for Special-Needs Students

The establishment and refinement of school bus evacuation procedures, especially for students with special needs, is an essential aspect of ensuring their safety.

The need for a standardized school bus evacuation time, as highlighted in recent studies, underscores the importance of this issue. Effective training and the development of comprehensive evacuation plans are crucial in preparing for emergencies and enhancing post-accident safety for all school bus passengers.

Special attention must be paid to medically fragile students and those with unique needs, ensuring that evacuation procedures are inclusive and cater to the diverse student population.

Ultimately, continuous improvement, regular training, and a collaborative approach involving educators, transportation staff, and the wider community are critical to creating a safe and responsive school transportation environment.

“Keep in mind that physical, sensory, cognitive, and behavioral issues must be considered and can complicate the evacuation if strategies are not put in place,” Mitchell says. “Precautions should be taken to ensure the safety of students while practicing drills. Utilize your resources during drills. It is helpful to have extra staff, your district physical therapist, and your behavioral specialist observe drills to offer advice and strategies. Take the time during your drills to work with your children and identify strategies that will work with the individual student.”

About the author
Wes Platt

Wes Platt

Executive Editor

Wes Platt joined Bobit in 2021 as executive editor of School Bus Fleet Magazine. He writes and edits content about student transportation, school bus manufacturers and equipment, legislative issues, maintenance, fleet contracting, and school transportation technology - from classic yellow diesel buses to the latest EPA-funded electric, propane, and CNG vehicles.

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