Iowa District Expands Evacuation Training to All Students

Thomas McMahon
Posted on July 18, 2018

Teresa Hartley’s experience with school bus evacuations dates back to when she was in middle school.

Hartley, now the transportation director for Iowa’s Mid-Prairie Community School District, was riding a school bus one morning in seventh grade when a car ran a stop sign and barreled into the side of the bus by the passenger door. The impact pushed the bus into a ditch, and it toppled onto its side.

Hartley, who was 13 or 14 at the time, was better prepared to handle the situation than the average student. Her mom was a school bus driver, so Hartley had spent much time around the yellow vehicles and knew, for example, how to use the two-way radio and the emergency exits.

That knowledge proved vital after the crash, when Hartley saw that the school bus driver (not her mom in this case) was initially unresponsive. The middle schooler grabbed the radio and called dispatch about the accident. Then she shepherded the other students out of the bus through an emergency exit.
While the young Hartley clearly handled the situation well, the experience was unsettling and has stayed with her over the years.

“It was traumatic,” Hartley says. “It’s something you’ll never forget.”

Now, during her first year as a transportation director, Hartley launched a district-wide training program to ensure that all students are prepared — as she was in her youth — to respond to a school bus emergency.

“Kids really need to know anything they can about the bus and how to get out of it,” Transportation Director Teresa Hartley says.
“Kids really need to know anything they can about the bus and how to get out of it,” Transportation Director Teresa Hartley says.

New Role, New Goal

Mid-Prairie Community School District is based in Wellman, an eastern Iowa town of about 1,400 people. Hartley has worked for the rural district for 16 years, initially in a student behavior position.

After about 10 years, she took on an additional role as a part-time secretary for the transportation director. When that director resigned at the end of the 2016-17 school year, Hartley applied for the job and got it.

While she had grown up around school buses, transportation department management was a new realm for Hartley. Over the summer of 2017, she attended a training session for new directors, conducted by state pupil transportation director Max Christensen of the Iowa Department of Education (DOE).

“One of the things I talk about is making sure all students participate [in evacuation training] and not just the route kids,” Christensen says.

Before then, Mid-Prairie Community School District’s evacuation drills had been limited to regular route riders, so Hartley took Christensen’s message to heart and then took action. During her first school year as transportation director, Hartley began talking to Joe Funk, a school bus inspector with the Iowa DOE, about how to expand her district’s evacuation training.

The urgency of the issue was reinforced in December, when a student and a driver died in a school bus fire on the other side of the state, near Oakland, Iowa.

“That got me thinking, ‘This is serious,’” Hartley says. “Kids really need to know anything they can about the bus and how to get out of it.”

In Mid-Prairie Community School District’s evacuation training program, students learned how to use all of the emergency exits on a school bus.
In Mid-Prairie Community School District’s evacuation training program, students learned how to use all of the emergency exits on a school bus.

All Aboard

Mid-Prairie Community School District encompasses two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, with a total enrollment of about 1,700 students.

In Iowa, school districts are required to conduct school bus evacuation drills twice per year. For Mid-Prairie Community School District’s drills this spring, Hartley made big plans.

The key change, prompted by Christensen’s point at the new director training, was to incorporate all of the district’s students in the training, rather than just those who regularly ride the bus. To further promote the importance of the event, Hartley invited some special guests and notified local media.

On May 23, Mid-Prairie Community School District held its first all-school bus evacuation drill program. On hand to help were state director Christensen, Funk and the DOE’s two other school bus inspectors, and five troopers from the Iowa State Patrol.

The evacuation drills were staged at each of the district’s four school buildings, with about 1,500 students from pre-K through 11th grade taking part. (The high school seniors had already graduated at that point.) Both regular-education and special-needs students were included.

Christensen and other officials led the training, showing students and teachers how to use all of the exits on the bus. That included identifying the emergency air pressure release to open the front service door, how to use the window exits, sitting and “scooting” out the rear emergency exit door, and how to pop open the roof hatches. For the latter part, even the smaller students had their turns — they were allowed to climb up on the seats so they could reach the roof hatch.

“They had to learn to do it themselves,” Hartley says, noting that in some emergency situations, “there’s not going to be an adult there to help them.”

All of the training participants practiced sitting and “scooting” out the rear emergency exit door.
All of the training participants practiced sitting and “scooting” out the rear emergency exit door.

Beyond Bus Routes

In Iowa last year, school buses logged nearly 42 million miles on route service, plus another 15 million miles for field trips, sports, and other activities. It’s on those non-route trips when the need for evacuation preparedness broadens to more students.

“So often in our industry, the focus is on bus routes and route students,” Christensen says. “And while our prime mission is getting students back and forth from home to school, we don’t want to forget how many activity and field trips we all perform, and those students and their safety while on the bus is just as important as it is to the route students.”

Hartley notes that the expanded evacuation training program was a learning experience not only for students and teachers, but for her and her staff as well.

“Everybody embraced this day, and everybody had something positive to say,” Hartley says. “They would tell me they learned something — ‘I didn’t know this.’”

Mid-Prairie Community School District has 14 school bus drivers, four van and car route drivers, and several substitutes. All of them were involved in the evacuation training day.

Hartley says that while the district’s future school bus evacuation drills won’t necessarily be such big productions — i.e., bringing in the DOE team, Iowa State Patrol troopers, and the media — the all-school, all-student format will be the new standard.

“We will do the same thing here twice a year, just not as extreme,” Hartley says. “From now on, all students — that’s all it is.”

Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools worked with the local fire department to burn an obsolete school bus. The event emphasized the importance of evacuation training.
Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools worked with the local fire department to burn an obsolete school bus. The event emphasized the importance of evacuation training.

School Bus Fire Demo Highlights Need for Preparedness

A burning school bus is one of the last things most drivers would want to see, but a recent training exercise in Virginia 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, says 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 says. “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 says 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 says.

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 says. “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 says 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 says 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

Related Topics: bus fires, emergency planning, evacuation drills, Iowa, NAPT

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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