Responding to school bus emergencies

CarolinaFireJournal - Michael P. Dallessandro
Michael P. Dallessandro
07/25/2010 -

Everyday during my ride to work I take note of all of the school buses on the roads today. After all, it is my job to know as much about them as I can. I am a firefighter and in my full time career I am a school district manager responsible for the safe operation of over 80 buses that travel nearly one million miles annually and transport just under 3000 children to and from school daily.


When I see a school bus on the road I look at it from two perspectives, that of a school district manager and that of a first responder. But when was the last time you really looked at the school buses in your response area? If you have recently responded to a school bus related incident your skills are probably up to date and you may have even identified some areas of training your crew needs as a result of that response. But if the last time you were on a school bus was when you were back in high school horsing around in the back seat with your special someone, it may be time to take a closer look because you never know when your department or company will be banged out to respond to an emergency or accident involving the yellow vehicle transporting our nation’s most precious cargo.....our children!

Anytime is school bus time

Right off the bat let me make something perfectly clear. If you are thinking you are not around during the day so you probably may never have to deal with this you are wrong. Anytime is school bus time. Most school buses hit the road as early as 6:00 a.m. and can be on late routes as late as 6:00 p.m. Add in the athletic and music trips and buses are on the road late into the night and at all hours on the weekends.

Also, many of the buses on the roads in the evening may not be from your local schools. They might be the “visiting” team adding a level of fear and confusion for your victims if they have been involved in an accident in unfamiliar territory possibly not in an arms reach of mom or dad. School transportation is big business.

There are approximately 400,000 school buses on the nation’s highways every weekday transporting 22 million kids. There are about 20,000 accidents or incidents each year most of them being minor fender benders however if you follow the national news there are always a scattering of more serious incidents around our country and those are the incidents you really need to be ready for.

Prepare emotionally and professionally

If and when you roll out on a school bus related incident you might be in a very difficult position. Chances are if the incident is involving a bus from your local community you may possibly personally know children on the bus or worse, your own children or grandchildren might be involved.

Prepare yourself and your crew for what you might roll up on during training sessions about school bus incidents prior to a real incident and again while enroute to a real incident. If you know you or your crew does in fact have family involved in the incident you are responding to try to professionally communicate that to the OIC while responding. The OIC will probably be calling additional resources anyway and will then also factor your need to switch to the roll of “parent” once the initial response is in order and a proper level of care is being provided and he or she can then swap you out to care for your own child.

Keep in mind that most school bus related incidents, since they involve children, will be emotional, possibly chaotic scenes where parents who monitor scanners and “text” will descend on the scene often faster than you have the ability to establish staging areas and other sectors. An individual should be assigned to manage parents/citizens and the media as soon as possible. Responders should also clearly be aware that all aspects of a school bus related incident will become a legal matter at some level and all actions and care should be properly documented.

Who does what?

In most cases a school bus related emergency will have three main players, the Fire Department, the Police Department and the School. If EMS is provided by a separate entity I still believe there should be three players where fire and EMS work as if they are one for this type of incident. These three groups should not meet for the very first time at the accident scene. At the very least a round table meeting should take place every 24 months to review these types of incidents and who is who in the zoo. In most cases the fire/EMS department will be the lead agency for the response, hazard mitigation, extrication and patient care/transport while the police will handle the law enforcement aspect of the incident such as crowd control and investigation. The school district should be prepared to provide data and information about the bus, fuel type, driver, route and children — names, ages and parent contact information. The school district should also establish a parent meeting area for major or serous incidents (preferably off scene) where parents can wait for information. All of the entities should supply a public information officer to handle media releases and requests for information.

The school bus is not a large car

Chances are your heavy rescue is stocked with the latest extrication tools in “triplicate” and you probably have the right tools to handle a school bus incident however if you have not trained in advance the time to test out your tools and skills is not at an actual incident. School buses are built very different than passenger automobiles. Yellow buses are designed and built to meet strict state standards and provide a compartmentalized, almost tank like structure. In many ways the bus is like a turtle’s shell. Once the turtle’s head, tail and legs/arms are retracted into the shell (I wasn’t sure if a turtle has four legs or two legs and two arms but we can debate that another time) everything inside the shell is pretty safe from most dangerous situations.

Much is the same for children inside a school bus. The only way to obtain real hands on training on school bus extrication is to work with your local school bus operators to obtain a retired school bus to practice using your tools. There are many great programs available for onsite classes as well, such as the three or six hour class I offer at or you can simply search the web for school bus extrication classes when you are able to obtain a junk bus for training purposes.

Can you handle it?

I’m not talking about the emotional aspect, but from an equipment and personnel aspect. When you receive the radio call for a school bus incident ask yourself where you can get 20 ambulances from or 40 backboards and collars in a matter of minutes? Do not underestimate the resources needed. You can always cancel or reduce your department’s MCI plan or disaster response if you do not need it once you arrive.

At the scene

Size up and triage are very important upon arrival. Keeping your personnel safe is very important so do not allow them to let their emotions get the best of them and jump off the rig and rush up to the bus immeduialty. Insure the scene is safe for responders.

Once the scene is secure an inner circle and outer circle survey of the area should be completed so you know what you are dealing with. Also, make sure responding personnel watch for walk-offs. These are children who may be scared, dazed or confused who are able to get out of the bus prior to your arrival and start to walk home, to school or off into the fields not far from the scene.

Get an accurate patient count as soon as possible from the driver if conscious which will help you manage your needed resources better. Make sure that the fuel and electrical systems on any vehicles involved including the bus is shut down and/or disconnected and that your personnel maintain a continuous fire watch with a large flow hand line stretched out and charged near your EMS/extrication operation.

In the event a fire should start you have about two minutes before conditions inside the bus become uninhabitable by humans so have the line ready. Do not waste valuable time trying to stretch the line and wet the pump if a fire starts. In most cases make use of every emergency exit on the bus thereby avoiding getting the main entrance door jammed up with patients and care providers.

Consider a smooth flow such as “care providers in one way” and “patients out another way.” In the event your regular pathways are inoperable due to the accident, a hands-on course can show your crews how to create new pathways in and out of the bus through the wonders of modern cutting tools.

After the incident

Back at the station the initial priority will be to get your rigs back in service and ready for the next run. Next you should review all report forms, dispatch logs, times and patient care reports to insure they are “trial” ready just in case. With all that official business aside, as soon as possible set up some type of critique of the incident and if necessary due to the seriousness of the incident provide critical incident stress debriefing to all responders. While we have become much better in recent years getting in touch with our “real” feelings following serious incidents, our culture in some places still promotes a tough or macho environment. Make sure our responders are healthy, not just on the outside but on the inside as well.

While there is no way to cover a six-hour hands-on school bus extrication class in a single article, I hope that I have provided some important key points for you think about as you watch the school buses traveling around your response area.

Your comments or questions are always welcome to [email protected].
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