Many features on a school bus affect emergency response. Some features make our job easier; others may make it more difficult or hazardous. Since all buses do not have all the same features, the success of an emergency response plan involving a school bus depends on training and the proper size-up.


Bumpers. The 316-inch steel wraparound types are found on most buses. They offer great protection when they are hit by smaller vehicles, which typically go under the bus. Bumpers may be used as a cribbing point for stabilization, since they are bolted directly to the frame and do not contain “shock absorbers,” such as those found on smaller vehicles.

Side windows. Most are mounted in an aluminum frame from the inside and can easily be removed as a unit with simple hand tools. Only the top half opens, providing an insufficient opening for egress or access (12- 2 24-inch). Emergency windows are marked and hinged at the top or on the side (newer models), providing approximately a two-foot-square opening. The glass is tempered (fragments when broken).

Front, rear, and door windows. All are mounted by means of a rubber two-piece gasket, which is easily removed with hand tools. The front windshield is of safety glass (two layers laminated to a thin plastic middle sheet). The rear and door windows may be safety or tempered glass.

Front door. It provides up to a 30- 2 85-inch opening. The numerous variations (one-piece, two-piece, bifold, pneumatic, manual, and so on) cannot all be covered in this article. The important point is to look it over carefully to determine the easiest method for forcing it, if that becomes necessary. If the bus in upright, the front door will be one of your primary access/egress points–if it has not been crushed in. (Remember, on “B” and “C” buses, this door is behind the front wheels; on a “D” bus, it is in front of the wheels and vulnerable to a front-end impact.)

Rear door. It provides up to a 40- 2 56-inch opening. All rear doors are hinged on the right and secured by a single- or three-point latching device. Regardless of the position of the bus, the rear door is one of your primary access/egress points. (Rear-engine “D” buses do not have a rear door, but the full-width rear window functions as an emergency exit, and an additional side exit is provided.)

Side door. It provides up to a 32- 2 56-inch opening. A side door is normally provided on newer buses that have a seating capacity greater than 30. The door is on the left side of the bus, midship. An additional side exit door may be provided on the right side. A single- or three-point device is used. When opened, a seat, which may or may not fold up, will be in the way. Wheelchair school buses will have a right side door (away from traffic) that will have a hydraulic chair lift mounted behind it, providing up to a 46- 2 62-inch opening when the lift platform is down.

Roof hatches. Most provide an opening of approximately 18 to 24 inches square, although those on wheelchair buses may be up to 30 inches square. Older hatches have latches only on the inside, whereas newer models have latches on the interior and the exterior. Hatches make good access but poor egress points. If the bus is on its side, the rear door or front windshield is preferred for egress, since the opening is larger. (Presently in Florida, one hatch is required for buses with a capacity of 35 or fewer and two for larger-capacity buses.)

Seats. The driver`s seat typically is a commercial “bucket” type; the passenger seats are bench type. The bench seats are one-inch tubular steel frame and are attached to the floor by bolts or screws. The side of the bench seat against the wall of the bus is screwed or bolted to a lip that extends from the interior “skin” approximately one inch. Beginning in the mid-1970s, all new seat backs are of the high-back style. The seat benches and backs are cushioned and covered with flame-resistant covers.

Seatbelts. Of the 50 states, only New York and New Jersey require that they be installed in new buses. Only New Jersey requires their use. There is an ongoing debate, resurrected after each major school bus incident, about whether seatbelts on a school bus do more harm than good. Other problems are enforcement, which would be the responsibility of the driver and the transportation company, and the liability to which they would be subjected. School buses transporting students with “special learning disabilities” or wheelchair students, however, do have seatbelts. Wheelchair buses also have restraint systems to hold down the chairs.

Aisle. The aisle of a typical school bus is 12 inches wide; headroom is about 70 to 74 inches. Wheelchair buses sometimes have aisles that are 30 inches wide. The combination of a 12-inch aisle and high-back seats makes backboard operations inside an upright bus very difficult.

Batteries. The location of the battery/batteries varies widely. Generally, there is an exterior compartment on the left side near the front. If this is not the case, check the engine compartment. As in the case of other vehicles, the batteries may have to be disconnected in some circumstances, even if a battery switch is in the driver`s area. To prevent arcing, always disconnect the negative side first.

Fuels. Although gasoline has been a popular fuel for school buses in the past, most new buses now use diesel fuel. Alternate fuels include propane (LPG), liquid natural gas (LNG), and compressed natural gas (CNG). LPG is the most common alternative fuel, accounting for 73 percent, according to one survey. What this means is that we cannot assume the fuel type; we must confirm it and deal with it accordingly.

The fuel tank is located on the right side, behind the entrance door. This area is well protected for crash protection purposes.


Most school bus incidents require the same skills as incidents involving other types of vehicles: basic fire, medical, and vehicle extrication skills (usually to deal with the people in the car that collided with the bus). More specialized training would be needed in the following situations: school bus incidents resulting in mass casualties, incidents in which the school bus has sustained heavy damage and there are serious injuries, and incidents that present a combination of these challenges.

Note: The following is an overview of the specialized techniques and tactics required for a major school bus incident. They are best learned when they are practiced during a “hands-on” training drill. I strongly recommend that you acquire a school bus for training purposes and practice the following techniques. Only then will you have a well-rounded knowledge of school bus rescue practices. I also recommend you attend a course on mass-casualty incidents.


There are many considerations during a major incident. Most are the “basics.” They will be mentioned only, since this article focuses on specialized, advanced techniques. However, do not overlook the basics. Apply them to every incident.

In any major incident, scene control and coordination are most important. Incident command/management allows the proper resources to operate within the command structure and offers the flexibility needed when dealing with major emergency incidents. “Walk-aways” will occur if the incident is near the school or student`s home. Also, parents may show up at the scene.

Use the “inner/outer circle” method to size up the scene.

Call for additional resources early.

Keep in mind that basic extrication tools may not be enough.

Consider that additional materials may be needed for proper stabilization.

Secure hazards.

Stabilize the bus.


Your first priorities are to make the scene safe and to gain access to the victims. Then, determine the scope of the incident to ascertain what and how many resources will be needed. Gaining a primary egress point or points is another high-priority task. The flow of rescuers, equipment, and victims should be one-way, if at all possible. You can accomplish this by using the openings that already exist, expanding existing openings, or creating a new one. The latter is a difficult, time-consuming procedure regardless of which part of the bus is in-volved.

The position of the bus affects tactics. Each position presents special problems.

Upright bus. This situation should present few problems unless the bus has been extensively damaged. The main access point will be the en-trance door; the main egress point will be the rear or side door.

Bus on its side. As a general rule, the rear door or window (rear engine models) will be the main access point. Remove the front windshield for the main egress point. Also consider roof hatches. The rear door can be enlarged, if necessary, by removing the rear windows and the posts between the door opening and the window. If the bus is on its right side, the rear door, which has hinges on the right, will open easily and fold out of the way. However, if the bus is on its left side, the door will have to be removed or secured open. A bus on its side can present multiple problems such as leaking fuel, limb entrapment under the bus, occupants hanging from seatbelts or otherwise entangled, and so on.

Bus on its roof. The main entrance door, if undamaged, will be the main access point; the rear door or rear window (rear-engine models) will be the main egress point. If the main entrance door is damaged, the rear door or window (rear-engine models) will be the main access point, and the front windshield will be the main egress point.

Once the access and egress points have been established, notify Command so that all personnel may be advised. The path between these two points will be your “rescue corridor.” All rescuers, equipment, and victims should “flow” through this one-way corridor. Most school bus incidents will not involve any additional specialized knowledge (other than this). It is the few rare incidents that will test your knowledge and skills to the limit. For these incidents, we must become specialists in our fields, much like high-angle or confined-space rescue. During these rare school bus incidents, we are faced with heavy bus damage, vehicle and/or patient entanglement, patient entrapment, and critical traumatic injuries.

The following techniques will be required to meet the primary objectives (access and egress) during incidents of severe bus damage:

Removing the entrance door. There will probably be an easier way into the bus if the entrance door is unusable, although a slightly jammed door or opening mechanism problem may be worth the ef-fort. Complete door removal is possible and depends on the style of door (two-piece, bifold, etc.). Remove the glass, and use a reciprocating saw.

Removing the rear/side door. The easiest method is to remove the door at the hinges. A problem presents itself if the hinges are in the door jamb and the bolts are not accessible. The ease with which you can re-move the door with hydraulic spreaders depends on whether the latching device is a one- or three-point latch, either of which can become a very difficult operation. I have observed some of the best rescue personnel with hydraulic spreaders lose a battle with a rear door. As an option, the windows in the rear door can be removed and the middle of the door cut out with a reciprocating saw.

Removing the side window. This is fairly easy, provided you do it from the inside. There are two screws with retaining washers/clips on each window post. Once you remove them–on each side of the window–you will be able to pry out (to the inside) the window and frame unit (to the inside) easily. I have seen a couple of firefighters do battle with a side window while trying to remove it from the outside. They lost.

If two windows next to each other are removed and the post between them cut out, an opening of 24 2 48 inches is created. This is referred to as a “picture window.”

Removing the front, rear, and door windows. Each is mounted by way of a two-piece rubber gasket. Removing the middle piece of rubber releases the tension on the mount, allowing the window glass to be pried out or pushed in, usually without breaking. Removing the glass by breaking is always an option.

Displacing the steering wheel. You can use traditional techniques, although the hood of most “C” buses is made of fiberglass and will initially buckle under the chains if the traditional column pull is performed. A 4 2 4 used as an anchor point for chains outside the windshield frame works well.

Removing seats. Seats may have to be removed to disentangle patients, to enter a bus through a side wall, or to “tunnel” to victims. Removing the bolts that anchor the seat frame to the floor or cutting the frames at this point are the normal options. Removing the frame from the side wall is best accomplished by removing the bolts, although it can be pried with spreaders or cut. Seats can sometimes be more difficult to remove than they appear.

Opening the roof. If a bus is on its side, there will probably be other access/egress points available. If this is not the case, you can breach the roof with a reciprocating saw or an air chisel. My experience has been that the air chisel works best. If a roof hatch is pres- ent, you may use it or enlarge it.

You can make two types of openings. The roof flap is made by locating a bow frame (look for the rivets) and vertically cutting the outside skin just to the side of the bow from as high as you can reach down to the ground. Make a second parallel cut just to the side of the next bow, in the same fashion. Make a horizontal cut at the top, connecting the two cuts. “Lap” down the exterior skin, and cut the inside skin the same way. Use a reciprocating saw or hydraulic cutter to cut the roof crash rail, which runs horizontally. You will now have an opening about 24 2 70 inches.

The sunroof opening is made in much the same way, except that the width of two bow frames is cut from the roof. Make two roof flaps next to each other and remove the bow frame between them. This will provide a 48-2 70-inch opening.

Removing a side section/creating side section flap. This is a difficult process. Attempt it only as a last resort. If there is an easier way, use it. To remove a side section, first create a “picture window.” From there, use a reciprocating saw to cut from the window to the bench seat level or the floor, depending on how large an opening is needed. This is done on both sides of the picture window. A relief cut is needed on the bow frame in the middle of the section being removed. The location of the relief cut is at the seat or floor level, depending on which size opening you are creating. If you choose to flap the section to the floor, you will have to remove the seats. When all cuts are made, clamping a spreader unit on the top of the section and pulling usually provides the leverage needed to flap the side down. If it will not flap, additional relief cuts may be required at the bottom of the section.


These techniques are not all-inclusive. Some ingenuity will be required at every major incident. The key is to get out and actually get some hands-on training before an incident occurs.

In addition to the knowledge and training you need to successfully mitigate an incident, you will also need the proper tools for the job. With the exception of a full set of hydraulic tools (spreaders, cutters, and rams), the tools needed are neither specialized nor expensive. They include reciprocating saws ($150 each), an air chisel set ($500), hacksaws ($20 each), a full toolbox ($500), and lots of blades. Other inexpensive items that can make the job easier include spray bottles and liquid soap mixed with water (to spray the blades), spring-loaded center punches, and air ratchets.

Being confronted with up to 100 victims–usually children–some of whom are entrapped or entangled in the wreck of a school bus and having to deal with a school bus, which is built unlike any other vehicle, can be overwhelming to even the most seasoned veteran. But training and the right tools will make the job a little easier. n

A newer style roof hatch as seen from the inside. Older styles have opening latches only on the inside. (Photo by author.)

(Left) This school bus, on its side, shows the large access or egress area available when the windshield is removed. With a bus on its side, your options are limited to the windshield, the rear door, and the roof hatch. Children may be hanging from the seats, now six feet in the air. Other children may have their arms trapped under the bus. Do you have the resources to deal with 65 children in a bus like this? (Photo by author.) (Right) Notice that the hinges are on the right (always) and visible. If this door could not be opened, cutting the posts between the door and the window, top and bottom, would provide an eight-foot-high “doorway.” (Photo by Craig Aberbach.)

(Left) If a main entrance door is jammed and cannot be opened, cut the inner parts of the door to create your own “doorway.” (Photo by Craig Aberbach.) (Right) Spreading a rear door open is one of the best ways to waste time and tire yourself out. Take the hinges off with hand tools or cut out the middle of the door instead. (Photo by author.)

The quickest way to displace the steering column is to use a 4 2 4 as an anchor point for chains outside the windshield frame. Fiberglass hoods (common in “C” buses) will initially buckle under the chains if the traditional column pull is performed. (Photo by Craig Aberbach.)

Removing seats can be more difficult than it seems. Sometimes simple hand tools work best. In this case, a reciprocating power tool is used. Notice the lip on which the side of the bench seat rests and to which it is mounted. (Photo by Craig Aberbach.)

(Top left) The first cut of a roof flap is made. Notice the location of the bow frame (under the rivets). The firefighter on the left is applying a spray of soapy water to the blade as the cut is made. This acts to lubricate the blade, cool it, and remove metal fragments from the blade and allows the blade to last much longer. (My experience is that an air chisel works best on the roof to “dissect” the pieces, although a reciprocating saw works well and is a must for school bus extrication.) (Photo by Craig Aberbach.) (Top right) These cuts were made using an ax and a sledgehammer. Although the cut is rough, the approach works. Here the firefighters are cutting a section of the roof crash rail. Note that the inner skin is still in place and must be cut next. (Photo by author.) (Right) An air chisel is used to enlarge the roof flap. After the second flap is completed, the bow frame will be cut with hydraulic cutters or a reciprocating saw to finish the job. This method will provide a large opening. (Photo by Craig Aberbach.)

(Top left) “picture window” being enlarged into a side section flap. The reciprocating saw, with a six-inch blade, will cut through the outer and inner “skin” at once. The presence of several side guard rails (the “W”-shaped metal), which almost entirely cover the side of the bus, make the operation more difficult. (Photo by author.) (Left) The final cuts for the side flap are being completed. During training sessions, I always have a competition between two teams to see which one can create a side flap first. One team is given two hacksaws and two reciprocating saws, the other team air chisels and a full set of hydraulic tools. The “saws” win every time. (Photo by Craig Aberbach.) (Top right) This is not your normal extrication. The “yellow tanks” are big, tough, and thick. If you are not prepared when one crashes in your district, you will be in for a big surprise. Turn the basic information contained in this article into knowledge by getting your hands on a school bus and practicing. (Photo by Craig Aberbach.)

LEIGH T. HOLLINS, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with the Cedar Hammock and Southern Manatee Fire Districts in Manatee County, Florida, and director of Starfire Training Systems, Inc. He is a Florida-certified firefighter, EMT, fire officer, fire inspector, and fire science instructor. He has an associate`s degree in fire science and is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and the FDIC educational committee.


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