Chuck Hibbert provides Part II of his insights from faciliating a session at the School Transportation Association of Indiana’s annual conference that highlighted the leadership and heroism of West Clark Community School District transportation staff and district administrators when an EF4 tornado struck in Henryville, Indiana.
Guest Post by Chuck Hibbert
Part II of this blog article continues with the many lessons learned in school transportation safety and emergency preparedness:
- I asked the presenters what made this tornado watch/warning different that many others they had experienced in their careers. (Actually, this was the second tornado to strike a school in Dr. Reed’s career. He experienced one previously at Center Grove School District in central Indiana earlier, but not an EF4.) Jim Scroggins explained they were watching one Louisville area TV station’s weather (WHAS) closely. Jim further explained they were also using the Weather Channel’s TOR-CON rating. The TOR-CON rating for the Henryville area was at 90% and as such tornado chasers from around the country were in the Louisville area waiting to see where the tornado(s) would strike. If you are not familiar with TOR-CON is based upon a simple one to ten scales for the probability of a tornado within fifty miles of your location. This was a different situation than the West Clark School District had faced before.
- Communication thought the storm was disrupted periodically. Cellphones failed time and time again, and the same with the school radio system. As is the norm, when communication is needed most, it wasn’t there. At first, when parents called the central office, the school district could not tell them where their children were or if they were safe. Those at district office feared the loss of one bus and driver. Parents were understandability angry. However, once the magnitude of the storm become clear and the bravery and great decision making was learned, the parents rallied around those at the school district, particularly the transportation employees.
- After the second tornado passed through the area (the second was the more severe of the two) the central office staff relied upon their training and used the incident command system and their NIMS training to get their response and recovery systems going.
- Drivers who could return from their routes did so, returning to Sellersburg where the district central office is located. A total of five buses were damaged in the storm. “The drivers were so, so brave during the storm,” Jim Scroggins said. It points out that people will almost always rise to the occasion, particularly when they are well trained and use common sense.
- Once the power failed at the school, the lower level and fault area had no emergency lighting since the school was virtually destroyed. Flashlights are now being added to the fire extinguisher locations at the school. They are also being placed in every school bus.
- Dr. Reed emphasized the bus drivers followed the directions of administration without question, whether it was in person or delivered over the radio. All of this occurred without unnecessary chatter on the radio, which is a problem for many school districts.
- During the recovery phase, community meetings were held for the parents on how school was going to be re-started. Since the Henryville building was destroyed school was to be held outside the school district. Start up began with elementary students. Dr. Reed and Mr. Scroggins stated because they were the group of students who they knew would follow direction the easiest.
- The presenters spoke about needing to make training more event-based rather than the all too familiar reading from the driver’s handbook. This points out the need for scenario based training or tabletops to make training more relevant.
- The gentlemen pointed out the need for a pre-designated PIO. Too many districts simply state in their plans the Superintendent will be the spokesperson for the district. That doesn’t work well when a situation like this is unfolding and the superintendent (captain) needs to be making decisions in the best interest of the district. Appoint another trusted person to this position in the early stages of an event.
- Since the March 2 tornado struck, the school board in West Clark Community Schools has met thirty-four times. How many times has your school board met since that date?
For all who care about school children, I wished you could have been there to hear first-hand the lessons learned by the people in West Clark Community Schools. They are the heroes/heroines of school transportation.
I had a chance to be interviewed by WHAS-TV Louisville who was at the conference to cover this session. As I told the reporter, too often all we hear about or see is the failures in school transportation. Here was an example of saving the lives of children which cannot receive enough accolades.
I know I was honored to be there and pleased to be able to give them all a standing ovation.
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