Assisting in evacuations and relief efforts are examples of how school buses and drivers continue to make an impact on their surrounding communities, despite the health crisis further cutting funds for student transportation operations.
In early September, high wind-fueled fires that blazed through more than 1 million acres in Oregon. More than 7,000 people were left homeless and a handful of people were killed. Local media outlets referred to the destruction as “once-in-a-generation” and “historic,” with many towns left totally destroyed.
T.J. Crockett, who was named the new transportation director for Salem-Keizer Public Schools this summer, told School Transportation News that while the district’s facility was 20 to 30 miles away from the fires, it was only 15 miles from evacuation zones. The effects of the blaze were certainly felt at headquarters.
Crockett replaced the recently retired Michael Shields on July 1, and the transition has been anything but normal, he shared. Not only did Crockett need to reinvent the start of the school year amid COVID-19 and find work for his school bus drivers during virtual learning models, he also had to navigate the air quality and smoke of the southern Oregon fires.
Salem-Keizer, located in Willamette Valley, experienced the worst air quality on Earth during the fires, he shared, as the air quality index was off the charts. The wind speed experienced on Aug. 31 darkened skies for three days and the air index was negatively affected for weeks.
“[But] I’d say it’s been one of my most rewarding startups, ever,” Crocket noted. “Just because of how much the transportation team has really stepped up to embrace all this chaos and still put out great work.”
Meanwhile, several First Student locations across the state were directly impacted by the flames. First Student, which has 24 total locations throughout Oregon and provides transportation services for seven districts, had to evacuate five locations due to their proximately to the flames. One location was unable to evacuate the oncoming fire, but it escaped damage.
Andrew Good, the district manager for First Student operations in southern Oregon, relayed that fields located within two city blocks of one company location were completely burned.
He said that because the fire approaching First Student’s Phoenix Talent facility was moving so quickly, staff were unable to remove the buses. Instead, he said the best thing the drivers could do was to save the lives of others. “There was a fire line break that was on the back-fence row of our facility there, and fire burned all the way down to there,” Good added.
Michael Hamel, area general manager for First Student in southern Oregon, is originally from the East Coast. He said he is used to hurricanes and shared that the two disasters are nothing alike. With hurricanes, there’s more time to prepare.
“I’m telling you, if you’ve never dealt with fire before, it is life-changing,” Hamel said. “It changes your whole aspect because you hear about it on TV. But until you see it and experience it, I don’t think you really know what it’s like.”
Evacuation Efforts by First Student
Despite 120 First Student employees having to evacuate from their homes, and another 20 or so losing their own homes in the fires, most still showed up to work to help evacuate community members in need, some even in secondhand clothes as they lost everything, Good explained.
The evacuation efforts started on Sept. 8 and lasted three days. Hamel said staff helped evacuate over 1,500 people and traveled a cumulative 8,000 miles to do so. He said the evacuation efforts lasted well into the night, with some school bus drivers being on call at 3 a.m.
“We’ve always served the community that’s what school busing is. This means we get to serve them a little bit differently,” Hamel continued. “But when we did these community evacuations, we were transporting people from nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and some of these persons that were on a bus they didn’t know what was going on. They soiled themselves or they urinated on themselves … our drivers really went above and beyond what you would think a school bus driver would do.”
He added that the school bus drivers had to sometimes lift people out of their wheelchairs and get them to a restroom. “Once we found out how above and beyond they went, it was really refreshing to know that,” Hamel added. “This was just one person doing the best thing they could for another person.”
He said this motto fits the company mission, as student transportation is all about doing the right thing for others, which extends to community members.
Hamel added that like Crockett’s experience in Salem, the air quality hindered operations, especially the ability of bus drivers to breathe.
While Hamel and Good couldn’t pinpoint the actual number of school bus drivers and school buses used in the evacuation efforts, they shared the buses were constantly rolling from 7 p.m. the first night to noon to the next day.
Chris Kemper, the senior director of corporate communications for First Student, said this example is something not only First Student but every student transportation operation nationwide should be proud of.
“I think it helps illustrate that school busing is an essential service. … I’ve worked for First Student for five and a half years actually pushing six, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clear example of just how critical school busing is, that it really is an essential service,” Kemper said. “First Student is very proud of what Mike and Andrew and their teams were able to accomplish, but I actually think it could be a point of pride for the entire industry, that really we also feel good about the work that they did, and the importance of it.”
Salem-Keizer Public Schools Efforts Amid Fire
While school bus drivers for Salem-Keizer Public Schools didn’t evacuate community members, they transported National Guard personnel to different fire locations.
Evacuation zones were 15 miles from the district border and had a large impact on transportation and district staff, Crockett shared. Many employees lived in the surrounding community and were under a “Level 2,” get-ready evacuation orders.
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As the National Guard attempted to get to these fires and help put them out, they ran out of transportation options, which is where Crockett and his team stepped in. School bus drivers loaded up 125 to 150 National Guard personnel at a time in six to nine school buses, due to social distancing practices. Seven total trips were conducted, which started on Sept. 12 and lasted about 48 hours.
Crockett explained that government entities prefer to first work through private sector resources before asking the public sector to assist. He noted that government officials were getting pretty desperate if they had to call on Salem-Keizer.
Salem-Keizer was also able to provide its school bus drivers with N95 masks that not only helped mitigate the exposure of COVID-19 but also with smoke inhalation.
While Crockett noted there was some anxiety expressed by drivers, they appreciated the role they played.