A Protected Bus

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On July 15, 1976, armed men abducted the passengers and driver of a California school bus, driving them 11 hours to the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area and transferring them to a moving truck that was buried in a quarry.

Chowchilla, a small town in the Central Valley where this hijacking occurred, is perhaps best known for the infamous kidnapping. And with just cause. The captors blocked a Madera County road and stormed the school bus as it returned 26 children from a field trip.

Ranging in age from 5 to 14, the passengers were attending summer classes at Dairyland Elementary School when they were snatched along with their bus driver. The kidnappers hid the school bus and transferred their abductees into moving vans and then drove them to a quarry, where they imprisoned the bus driver and the students in a buried moving truck with a small amount of food and water, and several mattresses.

After surviving 16 hours, the driver, Ed Ray, and the children escaped by stacking the mattresses so a group could reach the opening at the top of the truck and remove the 100-pound industrial batteries that weighted down the exit. 

The group emerged from their underground confinement in good condition and sought help at a nearby guard shack. Eventually, police arrested the quarry owner’s son and his accomplices for their various roles in the kidnapping.

While the Chowchilla incident is an extreme case, it has never been repeated in the 40 years since it happened. It’s obvious to say, but school bus security has changed.  

“Time is of the essence in emergency situations,” said H. Kevin Mest, senior vice president of passenger service at Zonar. “Having the ability to communicate to your entire fleet quickly with specific instructions is critical.”

According to Mest, while the ability to communicate has advanced by leaps and bounds, especially in real-time, broad-based communications that can help manage emergency situations, there are school bus operations nationwide that still use outdated technology, like radio communication, which is prone to inaccuracy by limiting content.

“Communication becomes slow and information can get lost in the shuffle when numerous operators are talking over the radio and there is not a digital record of the information on a screen or otherwise,” he said. “If you have a large fleet, you are going to spend a lot of time on the radio trying to relay emergency related instructions to your vehicle.”

Without critical information delivered by GPS and telematics, for instance, Mest said that when an emergency hits, “it’s like flying blind without it.”

He added that in the current reality, transportation departments, along with the rest of the world, function in a connected environment, and “that environment should extend to our children’s safe travel to and from school.”

“With digital communications, a dispatcher can reach an entire fleet with clear, concise instructions with a touch of a button to let everyone know what is going on,” he said.

The communication options offered by Zonar and other providers of GPS and telematics can alleviate tense situations with accurate data and two-way messaging, and actionable real-time data enables a better safety environment for drivers. 

“Clear communication based on accurate data made available over a tablet device is much less prone to misunderstanding than a radio message,” said Mest, adding that having all the information “gives drivers a sense of safety and security that they have information at hand and are not left wondering.” 

Yet, technology is not a blanket solution. Transportation departments need to have a proper action plan in place in case situations escalate, such as a hostage crisis. Usually this involves coordinating with local law enforcement, who may or may not have a tactical response team to handle threats on a school bus.

In November, at its summit in Kansas City, Missouri, the NAPT, in conjunction with the Transportation Security Agency and area law enforcement, demonstrated how tactical response teams respond to high-risk situations that are deemed beyond the capabilities of ordinary police. Attendees were invited to a school outside of Kansas City in Lee’s Summit and watched as these teams neutralized threats on a crowded school bus with speed and precision to save the children on board.

School bus driver Anne Zito, who works for the Minisink Valley Central School District in the southern part of New York state, said the demonstration showed her the importance of knowing what to expect when the unexpected happens, and if a similar event like the ones shown does occur, she understands just “how confusing things will get.”

Heather Handschin, a coordinator Spotsylvania County Public Schools in northern Virginia, added that the demonstration revealed “how much coordination goes into an emergency event, how important it is to have good communication between organizations and having a plan ahead of time.”

The ability to utilize a tactical response team should an option for school districts, since a situation on a school bus may escalate and there’s a need to defuse it before it becomes violent.  

“We work alongside our law enforcement and they help us in any way possible to keep our drivers and students safe,” said Ginger Moorhead, a driver and trainer for Lee’s Summit transportation department. “We keep our drivers up to date on all protocols.”

Education also must play a role in the security of the school bus and its passengers. Stephen Satterly, director of transportation at Community School Cooperation of Southern Hancock County, said that his district’s security protocols are “risk driven.”

“We do an annual risk assessment, which includes the impact of those risks,” he said. “We then prioritize them, and then make sure our plans address our highest priorities.”

Located outside of Indianapolis, CSC transports students in kindergarten to high school at five different locations around New Palestine, Indiana. Satterly, who is also the sole proprietor at School Safety Shield, a company that provides school safety services, said that CSC formulates its security protocol through experience and research.

“My experiences as an infantry platoon sergeant, school administrator and school safety specialist have shown me what works and what doesn’t, in responding to dangerous situations,” he added. “As an emergency management professional, I also rely on data to help drive my planning and decision-making. We identify risks, prioritize them, then address them in our planning.” 

Satterly, who is also a consultant for security firm Safe Havens International, added that because most transportation departments have limited resources, focus should be restricted to those high-priority risks that are most likely to happen. 

While the discussion can center on active shooter and hostage situations, at CSC, Satterly said, “We spend much more time planning and preparing for bus fires, accidents and man-made incidents, like fights and bullying.”

Still, no matter the degree of a hazardous situation, Satterly emphasized the importance of preparation in handling them so that everyone walks away in good condition. 

“I teach people to use the Window of Life as a guideline for decisions in the first few seconds of a crisis,” he said. “The Window of Life has four steps: protect yourself; protect others; protect your bus; notify public safety.”

Satterly detailed each step in the Window of Life, equating the first one to the safety measures aboard an airplane: Put your mask on before trying to help others, since the driver is often the only adult on the bus, thus they are the primary caregiver for all the children. Sacrificing oneself leaves the children without direction.”

This extends to calling 911, which should be done by the dispatcher or director, because “if a driver calls 911, they will be giving the 911 dispatcher information when they should be monitoring and caring for their children, which often involves them getting away from their radio,” Satterly said.

Protecting others usually involves an evacuation of some type and the actions afterwards.  Satterly stressed the importance of planning for “the afterwards.” One of those plans should include protecting the bus, which usually means securing the bus in a safe location.

Oftentimes, the safest location for a school bus is in the bus yard. Yet, preventing vandalism, school districts can invest in physical security measures: fencing, electronic gates, electronic door access, CCTV systems and lights. Satterly reported CSC has outfitted bus yard with most of these measures to protect the fleet, but they should be coupled with random checks by security or law enforcement. 

“I’ve asked the local law enforcement officers to just swing by on their patrols to see if anything is amiss,” he said. “We have perimeter fencing, an electronic gate with a card reader, doors with keypads and security cameras covering the buses and fuel island, as well as an intruder detection system that is based on motion sensors.”

He did mention that the newer systems on the market could be set up to provide text alerts for alarms, along with access to CCTV systems through smartphones or tablets.

Mest said that he wants transportation departments nationwide to be aware of inspection capabilities of Electronic Verified Inspection Reporting (EVIR) provided by Zonar. 

“EVIR allows transportation departments to take a proactive measure to ensure a vehicle hasn’t been compromised from a security standpoint before it ever leaves the bus yard,” Mest said. “This protocol and process allow transportation departments to ensure that their vehicles are safe from the onset.”

For example, EVIR can be configured to meet TSA security guidelines to visually inspect the wheel wells or all seats on a vehicle for any suspicious devices or bags. An added benefit, Mest said, is that all records are stored and can be an easily accessed resource for security officials.

EVIR is now available on Zonar’s new Connect Tablet, and other options are soon on their way to the industry.

IC Bus recently demonstrated its new tablet-based inspection app at the NAPT Summit Trade Show. Meanwhile, Tyler Technologies is soon unveiling an inspection feature on its Drive tablet that the company rolled out last summer.