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Situation Awareness: Responding to Crisis at the Speed of Life

On Oct. 31, another terrorist attack occurred in Manhattan, New York, during which the suspect used a rented truck and ran over numerous bicyclists in the park. The attack with his vehicle ended when he ran into the right rear quarter panel of a school bus that had students and some adults on board. Two students and two staff members were injured in the attack, while some of them were initially trapped inside the school bus by the extensive body damage caused by the attacker’s vehicle.

Jesus Villahermosa
Jesus Villahermosa

I have trained tens of thousands of pupil transporters across the U.S. over the last 31 years as a national trainer, and the question of a terrorist attack towards a school bus has been one that I’ve heard thousands of times from school bus drivers across the country. In this case, once the terrorist attacker rammed the school bus, he then fled his own vehicle with two fake weapons in his hands. He was eventually shot and taken into custody by NYPD officers. Although we are all grateful that he did not try to attack those inside the school bus, we have to ask ourselves this question: What would the bus driver have done if he did?

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Villahermosa speaks at STN EXPO 2017.

Given my extensive law enforcement background as a retired sergeant with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department in Washington state for 33 years, with 30 of those years being spent serving as the point man on S.W.A.T. entry teams, I have developed realistic training offerings for professionals all over the country on various violence-related issues. One of those classes is titled “Defensible Use of Force on the Bus,” and it is by far one of the most requested trainings I provide clients around the country. It was even presented at the STN EXPO in Reno, Nevada this past summer.

What continues to surprise me is how many bus drivers across the country still don’t know what their rights are in a crisis situation, and when and where force may have to be used. As you can imagine, I can’t cover all of the training points involved in the class, but I can tell you with confidence that no citizen in this country ever loses their right of self-defense or the defense of others during a potentially violent encounter. This right is a law in every state in the U.S. and no one can take it from you. The key to the law in almost every state is that when force is used by someone, that the level of force must be “necessary and reasonable” given the level of the threat.

So the question here is: What level of force could have been used by this driver in the Manhattan school bus incident if the suspect had turned his attention towards the bus with an intent to harm staff or students inside? The answer is he could have used equal or greater force to defend himself and the students and staff inside the bus. You see, the answer is simple but the challenge bus drivers face is that none of them took their jobs with the intent to get into a fight—let alone fight off a terrorist! It’s not part of their job description and they don’t receive proper training in these high-level crisis events. And yet recent events in this country are revealing clearly that these type of attacks are not going to stop anytime soon.

So what do we do?

A long-time motto of my company has always been “Awareness before Defense.” This simply means that I would focus my training on situational awareness and remember that using my eyes, brain and ears in recognizing potentially dangerous events can help me avoid those events in many cases. Then, there are these types of incidents where the bus was struck without warning and without any regard to life or property. Still, situational awareness training might have helped in this case.

I want to make it clear that I am not second guessing this bus driver’s actions as much as I have viewed the available videos from the scene. But a couple of things stood out to me that I think would help all drivers in this country think about what they might do in the same situation. In other words, let’s use this incident and the related video as a training tool so other drivers and driver trainers can benefit from it.

  1. The bus has been violently rammed and yet the video shows the driver outside of the bus talking with the citizen shooting the video. The driver exclaims something to the effect of students being trapped in the bus, and this we now know was true. The question is: Why is the driver outside the bus instead of keeping the doors of the bus shut pending the arrival of law enforcement? Keeping the doors shut would also delay the suspect from entering the bus had he had a violent intent against the bus’s occupants.
  2. The next question is: Why is the driver outside of the bus instead of trying to render aid to the trapped students in the bus? Even if he can’t get them out, these are young children whom he could have comforted during this traumatic event.

I want to again reiterate that I feel badly for the driver in this incident and I don’t believe he did anything wrong. What I do believe is that we have an obligation to start providing our nation’s school bus drivers more reality-based training and to have open discussions about what each driver thinks they would do in extreme crisis events. You see, we can’t train for every event that might happen against a school bus, but we can mentally visualize and discuss options with local experts and other drivers.

I always train my clients that a crisis is not the time to be crisis planning, so we must have some kind of plan ready should an event like the one in Manhattan occur to our drivers. This incident should be openly discussed in driver trainings across the country, not to scare drivers but to reassure them and encourage them to develop their plan now rather than during the incident.

The responsibility of this type of reality-based training falls on the shoulders of the trainers within transportation departments or bus companies, depending on who has the contract. The challenge with that is: What expertise do most transportation trainers in this country have in regards to high-risk crisis events? Because if you don’t have a lot of experience in the area of violence prevention, then how can the training have any validity that would withstand a civil lawsuit?

There is so much more that I would love to address in this article regarding bus driver reality-based safety training but for now, these are just a few thoughts for transportation departments around the country to consider. Not just for the sake of their drivers but also for the sake of our nation’s children.


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