School Bus Incidents: Are You Really Ready?

Since I first wrote about school bus extrication in the December 1997 and January 1998 issues of Fire Engineering, not much has changed concerning school buses themselves. They are built to federal, state, and local standards that have stayed mostly the same, which is that school buses must be designed and built tough enough to withstand significant impact while protecting our children inside the passenger compartment of the bus. This is accomplished through a design that uses heavier-than-normal vehicle construction techniques, a high-profile chassis, seating compartmentation, and various safety features.

Seat belts on school buses continue to be an issue nationwide. Laws vary state by state, and local decisions may or may not require their use. With that said, our approach to the rescue and extrication side of responding to a school bus incident remains mostly the same as in the 1990s.


(1) Photo by Mark Skukowski.

The things that have changed since the 1990s are the training of the responders and the equipment they use. With the help of conferences such as the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) and other regional and national conferences, many responders have a greatly enhanced knowledge of heavy extrication. Speaking just for the FDIC conferences at which I have taught and the group with which I travel and teach throughout the United States, we have taught about 2,500 emergency responders school bus rescue in the past 10 years. Couple that with the 2001 release of Fire Engineering’s School Bus Extrication video (now available on DVD), and the number of responders nationwide who now have an enhanced knowledge of school bus rescue techniques probably climbs to 3,500 to 4,000. That is a major difference: upward of 4,000 emergency responders with a greater level of knowledge in the discipline of school bus rescue and extrication. At FDIC 2007, we continued the mission of preparing our nation’s emergency responders by offering a new hands-on training (H.O.T.) extrication program using cars and school buses and by offering a classroom session on school bus extrication.

Along with this enhanced knowledge is the availability of more powerful extrication tools, specifically hydraulic spreaders and cutters, as well as more powerful corded and battery-powered reciprocating saws, all of which are so important when moving and cutting the heavy metal components of a heavily reinforced school bus. Let us not forget that in addition to the technical knowledge of school bus rescue and extrication, responders must also be well trained in mass-casualty incidents (MCI) as well as incident command and control. These disciplines are the other two vital components of a successfully mitigated school bus-related incident. Let’s briefly evaluate several incidents.

In the past two years, the department I work for has had several incidents involving school buses. Although none were MCIs, we can still learn from them by evaluating and reviewing what went right, what went wrong, what could have occurred, and how we would have handled the “what ifs.”

INCIDENT EVALUATIONS

Following is an evaluation of four incidents; our department responded to three of them. On the first two incidents, I was the on-duty battalion chief (incident commander). On the third incident, I was on duty and listened to the call but did not respond to it. The fourth incident occurred in a neighboring district.

Incident 1: May 18, 2005; Car vs. School Bus

The incident occurred on a busy four-lane, east-west road. A class D school bus (the largest type) with 25 middle school students was stopped at a traffic light and was rear-ended by a passenger car. The driver of the car and six students were injured, packaged, and transported to local hospitals by ground ambulance.


(2) When a car is involved, the car generally “loses.” One exception to that rule is if the collision forces the bus to take an evasive action and the bus overturns, which is not uncommon. (Photo by author.)

I responded on the initial tone-out of a “car vs. a school bus” and requested a second-engine response. (Note: County government provides the EMS system in our county; our fire department is an independent district. The fire department’s role for such a call is to respond in addition to the EMS ambulances to perform three main functions: scene safety (fire, hazmat, electrical issues caused by such a crash), and medical treatment of victims (as first-in unit or to assist EMS as needed and perform any rescue or extrication that may be required).


(3) Getting emergency responders inside the bus to evaluate and triage is very important. This needs to occur even if the bus is overturned or on its side. Make sure the scene is safe first; then triage and rescue the occupants as needed. (Photo by author.)

On my arrival, after the first-in engine and ambulance arrived, I assumed command from the engine officer, who reported that his crew was treating the victim in the car and evaluating the car and bus for safety issues. He also advised that the EMS crew was inside the bus evaluating and triaging the bus occupants. Near the front of the bus, I heard the bus driver (who was uninjured) say that she was having the school administration contact all the parents to have them come to the scene. I immediately advised her not to do that, that we needed only a school district representative to come to the scene, and that we would contact parents at a later time. I then entered the school bus through the main door and observed about a dozen students on their cell phones, calling home. So much for my first command decision! I met with the charge medic near the front of the bus. She advised me that there did not appear to be any serious injuries to the students. She reported that six of the 25 students evaluated had C-spine-related injuries and that she had called for two additional EMS units and an EMS supervisor.


(4) Unified command? You bet. Fire, EMS, law enforcement, and school district representatives must all work together to mitigate a school bus incident, even a minor situation. The sharing of information is critical. [Photo courtesy of Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue.]

I asked her and the bus driver to keep the students on the bus until I could set up a few things. I then requested that an empty backup school bus be brought to the scene. Shortly thereafter, the EMS supervisor and the school district representative were on-scene. Together with law enforcement, we established a unified command and established the following course of action:

  • The students who claimed no injuries would continue on to school when the backup bus arrived.
  • We would verify that an empty bus was en route.
  • Parents, who were now showing up, could take their children with them, provided they had the proper ID and other necessary credentials.
  • The second EMS supervisor would be the “control officer” at the exit door of the school bus and record the names and disposition of all students leaving the bus.


(5) A control officer is a must for efficient, responsible scene management. (Photo by author.)

About this time, the charge medic confirmed that six students would be back-boarded for transport, that the engine crews completed packaging the car driver, and that the crews were now assigned to assist with the packaging and removal of the injured students from the bus. This was accomplished by allowing the uninjured students to exit the bus and to board the backup bus or meet with their parents. When that was completed, crews set up a “rescue corridor”-equipment and rescuers were brought in the front main door and victims were taken out the rear emergency window. Using such a “corridor” allowed for a smooth flow and easier removal of the back-boarded victims instead of bringing them to the front and having to make a 90° turn out the front door. The scene, although multiple agencies were involved, ran smoothly. The situation was mitigated successfully because of one common theme-training.


(6) Are you familiar with the term “rescue corridor”? You will need to know about it if you are moving patients off a school bus. A rescue corridor refers to the movement of rescuers and equipment in one way and the movement of patients out another way. (Photo by author.)

Looking back at what went right, what went wrong, and what could have occurred, we learn the following:

  • The proper and correct number of resources called to the scene was right on.
  • The triage and evaluation process was correct and contributed to the successful outcome.
  • Unified command works.
  • The school district did not overreact by having all the students involved transported, which would have placed an unnecessary burden on EMS and the hospital’s resources.
  • Having a control officer was critical. It is our responsibility to make sure we know where all the students went. When a frantic parent asks the question “Where is my child?” answering “I don’t know” won’t cut it!
  • The “rescue corridor” was used successfully.
  • Middle school- or high school-aged kids will have cell phones and will be calling parents. Prepare for this.
  • Most incidents involving a car vs. a school bus are not a big deal for the bus occupants unless the bus is forced off the road and hits something else or overturns. Had any of these things occurred, we would have faced a much more difficult scenario that would have necessitated many more resources and heavy-rescue tactics.

Incident 2: October 31, 2006; Trailer vs. School Bus

This incident occurred on a two-lane, east-west road that is heavily traveled during the morning and evening rush hours. A class C school bus (the most common type on the road) with six special education students, an aide, and the driver were headed east when a westbound trailer loaded with concrete construction materials being pulled by a truck became disconnected and veered into the eastbound lane. The school bus, traveling about 45 mph, struck the fully loaded trailer head-on. This sent the school bus into the westbound lane and into the ditch next to the road. The roadway was littered with trailer pieces, rebar, dry concrete mix, and form boards.


(7) This is what was left of the runaway trailer after it collided head-on with the school bus. (Photo by author.)

I responded on the initial tone-out for “vehicle accident involving a school bus,” along with two engine companies. On my arrival, after the first-in engine, the scene looked much worse than it was. The engine crew arrived prior to EMS and was evaluating the scene and the school bus occupants. The officer advised me rather quickly that there were no injuries and that they were removing the students from the bus. I assumed command and met with the engine officer for a briefing, after which I cancelled all additional responding units except for EMS. Although the school bus aide advised us that everyone was uninjured, I wanted EMS to check out the students. At that time, a call was made for a school district representative and an empty backup bus. Both arrived shortly thereafter.


(8) How will you communicate with a school bus full of mentally disabled students? Use your resources wisely. In this case, the adult aide on the bus was the only one who understood the students. What if the aide was injured? Prepare now. (Photo by author.)

The major obstacle this incident presented was that the high school-aged students on the bus were mentally disabled to the point that we could not communicate with them to help us determine if they were injured. It was obvious that they were not seriously injured; but, after surveying the force of impact and the damage done to the bus, it was obvious that they were thrown around the bus. The uninjured bus aide was a valuable tool for us, since she could communicate with the disabled students somewhat.


(9) Damage such as this indicates that a major impact occurred. Most situations like this will result in injuries to bus occupants. (Photos by author.)

Again, looking back on what went right, what went wrong, and what could have occurred, we found the following:

  • Luck was on the side of the bus occupants, because the force of the impact was severe.
  • Luck was on the side of the other westbound travelers, since the bus did not strike another vehicle.
  • The first-in engine company did a quick and thorough size-up and evaluation and communicated this information to command.
  • The aide had medical records for each student on the bus.
  • The school district responded appropriately in sending a representative (same person as in Incident 1), a backup bus, and not overreacting.
  • This incident shows that a school bus can take a severe hit and provide occupant protection.
  • As in Incident 1, if the bus had overturned or hit something else, we would have faced a much different challenge.
  • Overall, this was a “nonincident.” All we did was help the students off the bus and report their status to EMS.


(10) Is your fire department prepared for this? School bus incidents require that responders be trained in heavy rescue, mass-casualty incidents, and command and control. Only then will you have the knowledge to be successful when a school bus full of children strikes something large or rolls over on its side.

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Incident 3: March 13, 2007; School Bus vs. Car

This incident occurred on a quiet residential street overlooking Sarasota Bay, in the south part of the county. It, too, became a “nonincident.” However, the potential for a major incident was present. Because of my recent assignment to the training division, I did not respond to this incident, but I listened to it on the tactical channel and spoke to the responders.

The call was toned out as a “vehicle accident.” Additional information from the communications center (ECC) advised that the incident involved a bus and a car (a convertible) and that the person in the car was DOA (dead on arrival). Updated information from ECC was that the bus “rolled over.” The information was then revised to “the bus rolled over the car; the bus itself did not ‘roll over.’ ”


(11) Proper communication is always a key component at a successfully managed incident. “Roll over” or “rolled over”? What type of bus was that? GOA (gone on arrival) or DOA? Be specific, and make your point in brief statements. If dispatch gives conflicting information, ask questions. [Photo courtesy of Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue.]

The on-duty battalion chief responded and asked for a second engine company to respond. The deputy chief (DC) of the volunteer fire company in the south county area also responded. The DC arrived first, established command, and advised that the incident involved a “county bus” and that the bus was on top of a car. The first-in engine arrived and was briefed by the DC, who quickly learned that only one person was injured.

About 50 elementary school-aged students were on the school bus when the incident occurred, and two occupants were in the convertible. Everyone was out of the school bus and car on the fire department’s arrival. The only injury was to the driver of the convertible; the injuries were minor, although the driver was transported by EMS.


(12) Accidents happen every day. Some just have more of a “wow” factor. What if this bus, which was loaded with 55 elementary students, had rolled over on its side? Would you know what to do? Normal vehicle extrication skills and tools will not work. You must have “real world” experience-hopefully, on the drill ground first. [Photo courtesy of Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue.]

So, as stated earlier, this was a “nonincident” that did not require much action on our part. However, we can still learn from it and prepare for the “what ifs.”

The rights, wrongs, and “what ifs” include the following:

  • The communications were a bit confusing-no, a lot confusing.
  • DOA (dead on arrival) sounds like GOA (gone on arrival). I don’t think either should be used on the radio.
  • The term “rolled over” has two meanings: A school bus can roll over on its side or a school bus can roll over something else. Although unintentional, this was a poor choice of words in this case.
  • The word “bus” can refer to a cross country coach bus, a transit bus, or a school bus. All three are very different from one another, and each would provide different challenges to emergency responders.
  • The term “school bus” was never used over the radio during this incident. That doesn’t mean the scene was not managed properly; it was. It just seems that information this critical should be announced. As one of my chiefs once told me, “Be specific when sizing-up any scene and when announcing your size-up on the radio. Be brief, but ‘paint a picture’ for incoming units and others listening.”
  • As in the two previous incidents discussed above, a school district representative and a backup bus were called, and there was no overreaction by the school district.
  • Parents showed up at the scene. Be prepared.
  • Students were off the bus when the fire department arrived, but someone still needs to account for all students. In this case, the school district representative took care of this.
  • This was a near rollover of the bus with more than 50 students inside. You must be prepared!

Incident 4: March 23, 2007; School Bus Fire

A neighboring department responded to a report of a school bus on fire. Although I was not there, I obtained basic information from news reports, pictures, and those who responded.


(13) Fire crews attack the fire through the side engine access door. Preplan school buses in your area for fire and rescue considerations. (Photo by Troy Toman.)

The class D rear-engine school bus was traveling east on a very busy six-lane, east-west thoroughfare at about noon on a weekday. The driver and an elementary school-age child were the only occupants on the bus. As they approached a traffic signal, the driver of a school bus passing by advised the driver that her bus was on fire. The driver stopped at the signal in the middle lane as the fire engulfed the engine compartment, spreading to the rear interior of the bus.


(14) Note the amount of smoke stain over the main exit door. If there were 80 to 100 students aboard during this incident, the results might have been tragic. Note that there is a left side emergency escape door on all school buses that do not have a rear door. However, this left-side door is small, and the seat, although a fold-up type, is usually in the way to some extent. Even so, the drop to the ground is about four feet, too much for small children. Expect them to head for the door they have always used, the front exit door. (Photos by Troy Toman.)

The responding fire crews used about 500 gallons of water to extinguish the fire. One problem noted was that this school bus did not have the typical large engine access door at the rear but smaller doors on each side at the rear. In addition, a square key was needed to open these doors, which caused a minor delay in opening the side engine compartment door to allow access to the burning engine.


(15) Large amounts of smoke and toxic gases entered the passenger compartment during this fire. There was enough heat inside that the roof hatch, 10 feet from the rear, melted.

Keep in mind that most of these types of fires are fuel fed. Extinguishing agents other than water may be needed, and pooling or flowing burning gasoline or diesel fuel may present an additional hazard to responders and other vehicles or structures in the area. With a fire this intense, expect the fire to enter the passenger compartment. Get a charged hoseline inside, as needed. Today’s school bus seats are fire retardant, but they will burn, or you may be dealing with an older school bus with seats that are not as firesafe. One other consideration is to make sure the bus wheels are chocked so the bus will not roll.


(16) The damage to the exterior is less than the damage to the interior passenger compartment. The engine compartment, which is accessed through doors on each side, was totally involved in fire. There is no rear engine compartment access on this bus, which is fairly common. (Photo by Troy Toman.)

As a side note, a school bus fire fed by gasoline killed 27 students some years ago in Kentucky. Although the bus was involved in a collision, which caused the fire, it was determined that all 27 fatalities were caused by the fire.

In our case, only two people were on the bus. Even so, they were delayed in exiting through the main door because they were in the middle of a multilane highway and the traffic continued to whiz by. The bus was on its way to an elementary school to pick up children. What if this had occurred with 80 kids aboard? Would they all be able to exit? Would they be struck by other vehicles? Certainly a bad scenario to consider, but it is totally possible.

ANTICIPATING FUTURE INCIDENTS

School bus incidents can present special challenges to emergency responders. Each of the above incidents was mitigated fairly easily-no big deal. However, look at the following “what ifs,” and make sure you are prepared for your next school bus incident.

  • What if the school district wanted all 25 students transported at Incident 1?
  • What if the school bus in Incident 2 ran head-on into another school bus after striking the trailer?
  • What if the school bus in Incident 3 rolled over onto its side, which it almost did?
  • What if the bus in Incident 4 had 50 students aboard and, in the panic of finding out the rear of the bus was on fire, the driver hit the back of a semi stopped at the traffic signal, effectively crushing the A-post into the main exit door?

In review, to be prepared, you will need the following:

  1. Technical training in school bus rescue and extrication.
  2. Mass casualty incident (MCI) training.
  3. Incident command and control training.

Then, last but not least, you will need to get a school bus or two, set up a drill, and use the “big 3” above and cut a couple of school buses up during a training session. That is the only way to acquire the true knowledge you will need to safely and efficiently handle the “what-if” scenarios presented above.

LEIGH T. HOLLINS began his career in 1976 at Nottingham Fire Company in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. He relocated to Manatee County, Florida, in 1977. He is a battalion chief in the training division at Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue and vice president and director of Starfire Training Systems, Inc. Hollins is a Florida certified firefighter, EMT, fire inspector, fire officer, and fire instructor. He has a college degree in fire science, is the author of numerous fire-related articles, and produced Fire Engineering’s School Bus Extrication DVD. Hollins is a frequent instructor throughout the United States and at FDIC, the lead extrication instructor for FDIC’s Hands-On Training program, and a member of Fire Engineering’s and FDIC’s editorial advisory board. Hollins is a founding member and current president of The Sun Coast chapter of F.O.O.L.S. International, a fraternal organization for firefighters.

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