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In Case of an Emergency

For the past 30 years, School Transportation News has reported on a wide spectrum of student transportation-related incidents including school bus crashes/collisions, weapons and aggressive behavior on board the bus, fires, and illegal passers, to name a few. While there will be different factors present in any given situation, training and protocols exist for school districts to implement, to best prepare transportation staff for effective and safe incident management.

Bret Brooks, the senior consultant with Gray Ram Tactical and the training coordinator and policy advisor for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, has not only helped train districts in emergency response but spoken on the subject at multiple STN EXPO conferences. He returns to the STN EXPO Reno conference this July. In terms of incident management and response, he summoned the Benjamin Franklin quote, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.”

“A holistic approach to planning enables responders to effectively concentrate on the present emergency without troubling over which type of policy or procedure the emergency applies to. A single holistic approach is better than a dispersed, multifaceted approach,” he continued.

Brooks explained that the Incident Command System (ICS) provides a wide variety of training, but the most important aspect is ensuring that transportation departments know how to apply it to the school bus environment. He recommended a list of online Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) courses that all directors, staff, drivers, monitors, and aides should take. This list includes the IS-100 Introduction to the Incident Command System, IS-700 Introduction to the National Incident Management System, IS-200 Basic ICS for Initial Response, IS-914 Surveillance Awareness: What You Can Do, and the IS-362 Multi-Hazard Emergency Planning for Schools.

“However, to take all of these classes would require a lot of time and as such most districts (and especially private bus companies) do not enforce participation,” said Brooks. “There are some federal mandates that require certain participation in the ICS in order to receive federal funding (most applicable to public school districts). This is again why we see some differences between publicly funded and private transportation departments.

“Ensure staff complete the appropriate ICS training courses…then participate in drills, exercises, and tabletop scenarios on a reoccurring, routine basis,” Brooks continued, adding that districts should have an “established working relationship with law enforcement PIOs (public information officers).”

Jeff Adkins, the dispatch operations supervisor at Cherry Creek School District (CCSD) in Colorado, spoke of the mandatory training required of transportation staff at his district.

“CCSD safety and security, along with the transportation safety and training department, provide training for all transportation staff on proper radio usage when an incident such as a bus accident or bullying occurs on a bus,” he said. “Transportation staff are provided training specific to student violence and weapons on the bus during their training and all transportation employees are provided an [Operations Reference Manual], which are specific to these types of incidents on the bus.”

Adkins added that the yearly in-service training is mandatory. If an employee misses it, they must take a backup training course. Additionally, he noted that his district holds table-top discussions and drills with local law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS) partners within the district.

“CCSD has five different law enforcement agencies, and four separate Fire/EMS jurisdictions,” he explained. “These agencies have participated in our school drills and have utilized our buses for different training exercises.”

Paul Hasenmeier, the public safety director and fire chief at Hernando County Fire Rescue in Florida, has over 25 years of experience. He advises districts to get as much front-end knowledge on emergency situations as possible, alongside first responders. He said that knowing how a first responder will approach specifics instances of bus extrication and evacuation can greatly aid student transportation departments in training their staff.

Hasenmeier said thorough training will allow for school bus drivers to, “pay attention to the scenario and have good situational awareness of what’s going on.”

He noted a few different scenarios that illustrate why districts should learn directly from first responders on how to react. For instance, if a school bus crashes and is on fire, then evacuation would be the next course of action. However, if the bus encounters live power lines, then the safest thing for the students and drivers to do is to stay inside the bus and wait for the fire department to arrive.

In addition to downed power lines and fires, there could be hazardous materials present, weather conditions that would make evacuation unsafe, medical emergencies and other variables at play. All these scenarios make training with first responders even more crucial. Hasenmeier advised that districts bring buses that are equipped with wheelchair lifts, occupant restraint systems and seatbelts, so that if an evacuation or extrication is required first responders can operate those systems.

Plus, following the trend of alternative clean fuels/energy in the school bus industry, Hasenmeier also noted that he would like to see some kind of uniform identifier on electric buses so that fire departments can be prepared for an electrical fire, as that would be handled differently from a fire on a diesel bus. [Editor’s Note: some states/OEMs have requirements relating to electric school bus markings, but they can vary.]

Building a relationship with law enforcement, fire departments and EMS personnel through training will better integrate the district and first responders, he explained. It not only facilitates important discussions but when an emergency does occur, there is some familiarity between both parties.

Hasenmeier, who will be leading the closing STN EXPO Reno general session, “Fire Rescue Response to a School Bus Emergency,” has also written a book on school bus extrication. He noted that many districts have a written emergency plan based on the type of incident, and then have a checklist for drivers to follow. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for school districts to bounce that plan off of first responders to see if they have any other input or ideas to add to it,” he said.

Hasenmeier noted that he’s received feedback from districts that performed training and then successfully implemented the incident management training in an actual emergency situation. “The more classes I’ve done, I’ve gotten more and more calls that say ‘Hey, that worked,’” he shared.

Quick Communication
As communication is central to effective incident management, Adkins said that Cherry Creek in Colorado has implemented a dispatch operations center that monitors the transportation, safety and security, and maintenance within the district. CCSD transports 21,000 students over 100 miles daily, using a fleet of 593 vehicles which includes 332 school buses. Adkins explained the importance of having a centralized location where
districts can directly communicate with first responders and manage the incident with minimal confusion.

“The CCSD communications center can bridge radio communications with our law enforcement partners during emergencies,” said Adkins. “This again allows fluid information to flow realtime in these incidents.”

Hasenmeier commented on quick communication, noting that things were a lot different 20 years ago, when students didn’t have access to cell phones and social media. He advised districts to have a plan for getting ahead of news stories by managing the information that is being made public. This includes identifying a district representative and placing them at the incident scene as soon as possible to quickly disseminate important details with first responders and media outlets. He also noted that some districts have mass communication phone calls or texts that can relay the bus number an extent of injuries as well as send notifications to parents.

“Try to calm that storm of social media and the frenzy of a lot more people coming to the scene,” he advised. “Media is quick and social media is even quicker. Get the story out, the truth out to curb the rumor mills and news stories of facts that aren’t true.”

Brooks also commented on the release of public information. “During emergencies, the speed with which information is released will always be important,” he said. “This is where having pre-approved releases is beneficial, and the PIO can work with the law enforcement PIO to ensure certain, sensitive information is not released to the public until the appropriate time.”

Adkins said that Cherry Creek works directly with its legal department to ensure that transportation employees involved in any school bus-related incident do not have to engage with or release information to the public. He explained that there is a set group of supervisors and managers that are in charge of reviewing video footage, interviewing employees, taking statements, and handling administrative, leave if necessary.

Adkins concluded by saying that Cherry Creek transportation directors meet monthly with district leadership, safety and security, and principals to “stay informed of updated practices and expectations,” he said. “They attend hands-on training for lockdowns, secured perimeters, active shooter and reunification processes. Transportation leadership attends informational conferences, such as STN’s, to further gain technology advancements and safety practices from districts across the nation. Take what you have learned that will apply to your district and bring it back to implement.”

Detailed planning, frequent training, collaboration with first responders, and communication response protocols are all integral steps to preparing transportation departments in the event of any school bus related incident. “Create a plan, practice the plan, work the plan,” said Brooks. “Once proper planning has occurred and an effective plan has been created, then practice the plan to ensure it works, then simply follow the plan.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

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