By Linda Linonis
LIBERTY — A school bus on its side, burning with black smoke billowing from broken windows, was a horrific sight. For Liberty school- bus drivers and firefighters, it was a teaching tool.
School-bus drivers saw just how well-constructed and reinforced school buses are. A bus, circa 1991-94, was used as an example.
Firefighters learned where and how to cut into the well-built buses in order to quickly and safely extract students in case of an accident.
Participants learned how they can help one another. The demonstration showed the danger of smoke in the passenger compartment and how vital quick response is.
The training for firefighters and a mandatory four-hour in-service program for bus drivers took place Tuesday at Liberty Fire Station on Logan Way.
Lt. Gary Klaus, a Warrensville Heights firefighter and paramedic, who works with Howell Rescue Systems of Kettering, said the training exercise was to demonstrate to bus drivers and firefighters how critical it is for them to work as a team in an emergency.
Klaus said that when the fire department is called to the scene of an accident, school bus drivers can provide important information such as the number of students on board, ignition and fuse locations and if the bus has emergency windows or a roof hatch. “They also will help keep children calm, which will help keep them safe,” he said.
Fire Chief Michael Durkin said his department has such an exercise every-other year. Sessions keep the department aware of changes and updates on school buses.
Klaus said the black bands on school buses show firefighters where the bus is reinforced, and buses may have up to four black bands. There’s one at the bottom of the bus body, at real floor height, at seat level and at shoulder level.
“This is about teaching the firefighters about the anatomy of the bus,” Klaus said, noting they focus on where and how to cut. He pointed out that the reinforced black bands would deflect another vehicle in a crash.
Chuck Cera, supervisor of transportation, maintenance and routes in Liberty School District, said school buses have changed and improved over the years. He’s been with Liberty for 20 years.
“Yellow was chosen as the color because of its visibility,” he said. Buses also have a sequence of yellow and red lights to get motorists’ attention and to alert them to stop.
On two-lane roads, motorists are required to stop when a school bus’s lights are flashing and the stop sign is displayed.
On a four-lane road, motorists on the other side of the road don’t have to stop, but drivers on the same side must stop. Cera said his drivers sometimes report motorists who seem oblivious to bus lights and signs and pass when it’s not permitted.
Changes inside the bus have improved safety. “Compartmentalization ... high-backed seats are cushioned and protect children,” he said.
Parents sometimes question why there aren’t safety belts for student passengers. Cera said he sees both sides of the issue. If a bus would tip or be on its side, passengers would be dangling, he said. Unbelted students would come out of their seats, he acknowledged, but they could evacuate the bus quicker. “There are arguments for both sides,” he said.
Truman Boylen, Liberty mechanic, added that school buses with safety belts have led to another problem — students’ using the buckles as weapons and swinging them around. The 32-year employee pointed out it would be a challenge and distraction for the bus driver to monitor whether all students were buckled up and stayed that way.
Cera said he often hears comments about “empty school buses.” He has an explanation. Though buses have a 72-person capacity, Cera said that could be cramped, especially for older students. Liberty has about 35-40 students per bus. Cera, who sets up the routes manually, said students who live farthest out on the route are picked up first, then the route travels toward the school. He said this also is a safety factor in that the highest number of students travel the shortest distance to the school destination.
Cera also noted that Liberty, like other districts, has guidelines for school-bus riders and their parents. For kindergarten through fourth-graders, a parent, guardian or older sibling must meet the child being dropped off at the bus stop.
When tow trucks came to Liberty station to tip the bus on its side to continue the demonstration, Boylen pointed out that the trucks were challenged to tip the bus.
“If the front tires are on a flat surface, a bus is extremely difficult to flip over,” he said. “Cars have become lighter, while buses have become heavier.” Bus weights with passengers on board have increased from 27,000 pounds to 36,000 pounds.
Boylen said safety improvements have included emergency windows, roof hatches, roll cages and protected fuel tanks. Rubber floors and fire-resistant materials for seats also are being used.
Polymers and plastics previously used in buses would burn and be toxic. Newer materials may start to smolder but take time to burn, time to allow students to evacuate.
See also: Driving a school bus presents challenges