Emergency workers learn skills for school bus crashes


Zach Couch will be nominated for the Academy Award for lying still.

As Jackson County Emergency Medical Services personnel and area firefighters strapped him onto a backboard and carefully lifted him out the rear window of a school bus, his only moving muscles were his eyes.

He blinked but otherwise didn’t budge, serving as a volunteer experimental object during drills being enacted to provide hands-on learning for a just-in-case accident tragedy sponsored by the Seymour Community School Corp. transportation department.

In a could-happen-here scenario but we hope it doesn’t, Transportation Director Tim Fosbrink and some local bus drivers conducted seminar sessions that provided instruction and information they hope will stay impressed on the brains of local first responders.

Fosbrink has been on the job for four decades, and there has never been a serious school bus crash where the vehicle has been crushed or overturned and when emergency personnel had to evacuate dozens of schoolchildren from the bus in a hurry.

As part of last week’s program, Couch, 15, who will be a sophomore at Seymour High School in the fall, was repeatedly carried out of a bus the hard way, through a narrow rear window space, passed from one group of emergency workers to another and then gently laid on the hard floor of the Seymour Ag-Science Research Facility at Freeman Field Industrial Park.

"I lay on the floor and just let them take me," said Couch, who essentially was supposed to feign being unconscious.

Depending on how many groups rotated through the school buses for the drills each session, Couch froze in place three to five times.

"Good job, unresponsive student," praised bus driver Rick Zschiedrich, who showed the emergency workers the lay of the land on one bus.

Fosbrink initiated this operation. He has attended conferences featuring such training, and although in his years at the transportation department he has never overseen a major emergency crash, he felt it was best for the EMTs and other first responders to learn their way around the buses.

In a 15-minute classroom session ahead of the on-the-bus drills, Fosbrink showed some frightening and almost grisly slides of smashed-in buses and even one picture where an individual had been hurled out a window. In a testimony to Seymour safety, all of the accidents depicted in this part of the program occurred in other states, and he had to obtain the pictures from elsewhere.

Fosbrink detailed some situations that call for removing the main door altogether to help evacuate students and described other cases where it makes sense not to evacuate because there is not a safe place for the students to linger.

On buses for special needs students, there is an electronic lift that can be used to load and unload wheelchairs. But as driver Blue Deaton pointed out, there are times it may be necessary to hand crank the lift when the electric capacity is shut off.

The buses, Fosbrink said, carry fire extinguishers and first aid kits. There is a second adult assistant on board on a special needs school bus.

Students who ride the school buses receive updated evacuation and emergency training of what to do in case something happens twice a year, he said.

It may surprise some citizen drivers to learn not all school buses have seat belts for each rider since they are so emphasized for automobiles. As new buses are added to the fleet, they typically do come with seat belts.

"About 50% of the buses have seat belts," Fosbrink said. "We’re rolling that way."

The theory on earlier designs of school buses was that riders face high seat backs and they "absorb the energy" on impact, Fosbrink said.

Fosbrink reached out to county emergency workers for this seminar because one had not been conducted in several years and he thinks the knowledge is useful.

Nate Bryant, executive director of Jackson County EMS, backed the program wholeheartedly.

"It’s something we used to do all the time," Bryant said. "But I think it has been seven or eight years."

He thought fostering closer communication between first responders and school bus drivers could only be a good thing because "in real life, we would work alongside each other."

Conner Emily said such a large-scale disaster might be 0.1% of the caseload for EMTs, if that, "Hopefully, never." Probably 99% of the time when an ambulance is called, it is for a scenario involving one person. The only exception is usually a multi-victim car crash, or as in these bus examples, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"It gives us good experience and training with kids," Emily said.

Responders who visited Deaton’s bus with the lift set up an orange evacuation slide, even though it was a short one. However, it would be used for special education students who might have disabilities preventing them from being as nimble as some other students.

Emily sat down at the edge of the bus’ back door and propelled himself forward to land on the slide, but it was a little bit of an awkward transfer.

"I hit my butt," he said.

About an hour-and-a-quarter into the hour-and-a-half program, a radio buzzed. There was a need for help, and two of the EMTs departed as an emergency intruded on their class.

The students and bus drivers agreed they hope none of these specific drills will ever be needed in Jackson County, but they all understand major emergencies break out unexpectedly and it is best to be prepared.

"It will help them if they have a bus accident," said driver Matt Price. "I think the hands-on practical experience gives them an edge. We hope we never need it."

Julia Stout said she has been an EMT for four years but never had such training and was glad for it. She had been with the first group lifting Couch, who seemed to be a featherweight, not a potential defensive lineman for the football team.

That made her ponder how things would go if an unresponsive student was out cold on the bus floor and had to be raised above the seat levels and transferred out the back window.

"There’s no way we could turn him," Stout said. "We’re lucky he’s (Couch) so small."

Another call buzzed in 5 minutes after the first, and this time, some firefighters split from the building to hustle to a potential threat. Real life was always on the verge of happening.

For Seymour schools, real life has never reached the threatening proportions in the slides Fosbrink displayed in his PowerPoint presentation.

"Never," he said. "Nada."

The cracked-up buses, including one hit by a semi truck at 30 mph, and one turned on its side reminded the emergency workers bad bus accidents do happen, and sometimes, some of the usual five exit points built into buses are blocked.

Most people are used to school buses with rear doors that open via a handle, but some models do not have full doors now, just the wide windows. Fosbrink said it was too easy to have the emergency workers practice with the large door model.

EMT Dillon Bille said it is just as well the workers did it this way.

"In case we do that," he said, "we won’t be panicked at the scene."

Even if there is a much larger individual involved in an evacuation, Bille said he wouldn’t be concerned. In a mass casualty case, he said, "I think with the amount of people, we would have enough people at the scene."

Before all of his people scattered at the end of the class, Bryant gathered them for a poll, asking if they thought the class was worthwhile. He said he received an enthusiastic response. Bryant said the responders thought it should be done again, and he thinks the program should be offered every summer.

That emboldened Fosbrink.

"I think it’s a great idea," he said.

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