HomeSpecial ReportsTexas Program Enhances School Bus Safety Through Simulation Training

Texas Program Enhances School Bus Safety Through Simulation Training

TSD Conference evacuation training, grant catalysts for new state-wide emergency training

Modern technology, including the use of simulated school bus emergency scenarios, is helping to improve safety exercises for the school bus industry, as witnessed by a first-of-its-kind funded program in Texas.

Student Transportation Emergency Education and Response, or Operation STEER, is offered by the Region 6 Education Service Center (ESC 6) with support from a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) grant. First responders and student transportation vendors joined ESC 6 at the inaugural training last month hosted by the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District transportation training facility near Houston.

ESC 6 produced the full-day event held on March 2 in association with TxDOT and with the help of training partners BESI, Operation Lifesaver and Q’Straint/Sure-Lok as well as sponsors Adroit, Easy Way Safety Services, First Serves Consulting, SafeGuard, and SmartTag. The program was developed by Diane Wilson, the school bus safety training specialist at ESC 6, who told School Transportation News that she drew inspiration from the Hands-on School Bus Evacuations for Students with Special Needs & Preschoolers offered at Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs (TSD) Conference, hosted by STN.

Editor’s note — This year’s TSD evacuation class is offered on Nov. 8 and 9 at Frisco Independent School District near Dallas, Texas.

Wilson secured a grant from TxDOT via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She explained that the new grant allows for the launch of statewide training, which includes simulated emergency demonstrations conducted with student transporters, firefighters and emergency services.

She said the first Operation STEER event brought together school districts served by ESC 6 and ESC 4 in Huntsville, Texas.

“I combined those two regions, which were about 108 school districts, to see how this first one would work. To see what worked, what didn’t work, what we needed to change, what we could bring forward, and what the participants thought of it,” said Wilson, adding that 68 districts ended up participating. “Now, we know that we’ve got our feet wet, and now we know we’re moving forward with this for sure. Because it was a great event and very successful. And everyone just seemed to love it.”

Wilson said Operation STEER was inspired by the emergency evacuation training she participated in at the TSD Conference in November. The training is taught by Launi Harden, a TSD Conference tenured faculty member and retired director of transportation for Washington County in Utah, alongside Denny Coughlin of the School Bus Training Company, Diandra Nugent of Head Start provider Community Council of Idaho, and Aaron Harris, national sales manager for BESI, who also trained at Operation STEER.

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Wilson continued that she was impressed by the creative exercises that challenged educational industry professionals and taught them how to deal with crisis situations. TSD participants navigated a school bus filled with theater smoke to simulate a fire while they evacuated training dolls of varying sizes to depict infant, pre-kindergarten and older children that were secured in wheelchairs and child safety restraint systems. They learned how to cut seatbelts, operate fire extinguishers, and utilize emergency evacuation blankets. As well as properly use safety evacuation techniques. It offered school bus transportation associates an opportunity to be tested in high-pressure situations. Child safety is paramount in an industry that transports them from one place to the next. Instructors also covered ways to assist preschoolers and students with disabilities.

Motivated by the emergency training program offered at TSD and armed with new grant money given to Texas transportation officials like the schools, Wilson said she set out to recreate a similar simulation training exercise for Texas educators. One of the priorities of offering educational industry professionals the simulation was to help build muscle memory and preparedness for not just specialists at all levels within the school bus industry, but for the students as well.

The fight-or-flight response is instinctual, and in most cases, people do not respond as they should during moments of stress. Freezing or overreacting can lead to poor choices that might endanger the students. Reactions tend to be deeply ingrained, rooted back in the days of our ancestors, and designed for survival in dire situations. However, exposure to stressful situations and repeated practice can help build muscle memory. This neurological process encompasses the execution of movement patterns so that your body becomes accustomed to them without thought, allowing one to perform tasks as though they are second nature.

It isn’t every day that school transportation professionals are in situations where the bus is on fire, but in the case that it does occur. Wilson said her goal is to help build muscle memory through the simulation exercises, and it paid off. Operation STEER featured fire extinguishers on the ready, fire and first aid drills with realistic evacuation procedures, including staged student reactions and rehearsed railroad scenarios.

Wilson told STN that the multi-agency training gathered first responders and educators with the help of First Student, which donated a bus so that the firefighters could act out real-life scenarios. Part of the reenactment not only included filling the bus with smoke via smoke machines but also taking more extreme measures, such as the rescue team cutting portions of the bus to evacuate dolls that represented children.

The training posed some interesting questions. For example, the task of using a fire extinguisher might seem elementary. But if an individual has never used it before or uses it infrequently, they might fumble during crisis, when seconds can separate life from death.

“How does it feel to pull that pin, press the handles, and spray the nozzle? How does it actually feel?” Wilson noted. “The fire department was there teaching them how to extinguish fires, how to use the pass method, that type of thing. We had Operation Lifesaver there with us to do a railroad evacuation if your bus becomes stalled on a railway situation. What’s the best way? How do you do it? Who do you call? That type of stuff.

“We had Q’Straint come and do some demonstrations on proper wheelchair restraints for special needs children,” she continued. “We had BESI and did safe evacuations of special needs children off buses and correct ways to cut seatbelts and pull them on the fire blankets and manual operation of the wheelchair lift and that type of thing.”

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For unpredictable circumstances, Operation STEER is meant to implement crisis response protocols if an emergency evacuation plan is required. The simulation included “what-if” scenarios, such as how school bus personnel would respond if a student ran off during an evacuation. Drivers with disabilities were also a concern in terms of how they might navigate a crisis if they weren’t able to physically help.

In addition to loading and unloading students from a school bus, local EMS experts showed attendees how to perform CPR chest compressions, including how hard thrusts should be, how to feel for a heartbeat and basic lifesaving tips.

Overall, Wilson said Operation STEER was a resounding success, providing an opportunity to speak with bus drivers, answer questions, and provide industry professionals with opportunities otherwise unavailable. Most notably, she added, Texas does not currently have a security training program available to rural districts, so the simulation helped to teach safety, best practices, techniques, and proper procedures to improve child safety.

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