First responders partner with Palliser on bus safety

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Fire Chief Kevin McKeown, right, and Deputy Chief Gary Gettman, of Coaldale and District Emergency Services.

COALDALE – Sometimes they can’t be avoided, but surprises are not something that first responders welcome.

That’s why members of Coaldale and District Emergency Services were grateful for the opportunity provided by Palliser Regional Schools to familiarize themselves with emergency procedures particular to school buses.

“Luckily, school bus incidents don’t happen very often,” says Fire Chief Kevin McKeown. “But that means you don’t get a whole lot of exposure to working with them. So having that knowledge on hand, before you actually do respond, is a huge benefit.”

Coaldale emergency service staff and volunteers were originally invited to take advantage of training provided by Palliser to help them qualify to drive the various pieces of fire and medical equipment they may need to use.

Getting better acquainted with bus construction and safety features, however, was an added bonus and one which could prove invaluable.

Knowing the location of the battery, exit points and the optimum place to cut into a school bus – should passengers need to be extricated – all provide first responders with greater comfort and confidence when rushing to a crash scene, says McKeown.

Responding to any motor vehicle collision is stressful. When a crew is dispatched to a crash involving a school bus full of children, Deputy Chief Gary Gettman says their anxiety level is kicked up a notch.

“They’re young and they haven’t had an opportunity to live their life yet,” says McKeown of the bus passengers. “I know for myself, once you have your own kids you always relate back to your own family.”

Coaldale and District Emergency Services and Palliser Regional Schools weren’t strangers prior to the recent training session. Gettman says they work with Palliser staff and students during annual fire inspections and Fire Prevention Week activities. Every other year they also put on a mock motor vehicle collision in front of Kate Andrews High School to highlight the dangers of drinking and driving and distracted driving.

The latest opportunity for interaction between the two had an additional benefit, he says.

“It’s nice to know the people and some of the contacts prior to an incident. At a time of an emergency, that’s not the time to be looking for phone numbers or contacts,” says Gettman.

David Shaw, Transportation Services Supervisor, says Palliser values its many community partners and counts Coaldale and District Emergency Services among those supporters.

“We know they are there should we need them and they’ve done their training, which should be of benefit if there should be another bus incident,” he says.

Dealing with a school bus crash offers its own set of challenges, mechanical issues aside.

If the incident happens within Town of Coaldale limits or a good portion of Lethbridge County, McKeown and his crew are typically the agency in charge of the scene initially. They assess the situation; identify risks and hazards to victims and themselves; set up traffic control; perform extrication if necessary; and assist with medical needs until an ambulance arrives.

Given their youth and the fact they may be in the midst of a traumatic experience, McKeown says school bus passengers might be scared, frightened and excited all at the same time. Maintaining control over the scene in such circumstances can prove a test.

“And then there’s social media too,” says Gettman. “They’ll likely be letting their parents know right away, and then we’ll have an influx of parents there to pick up their kids. That can make it more difficult to control the scene as they could be blocking exit routes for ambulances and things like that.”

Too often Coaldale and District Emergency Services responds to a motor vehicle collision where the cause was either a driver in too much of a hurry, or a distracted driver. The results can be “horrifying” for those who are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, says Gettman.

“If you are driving, pay attention to your surroundings; drive for the road conditions; share the road with other drivers; and don’t use cell phones while driving,” adds McKeown. “Plan your destination and give yourself plenty of time to arrive on time and safely. Don’t be in a big hurry. Slow down.”

Palliser Regional Schools’ annual “Think of Us on the Bus” safety campaign urges motorists to follow the rules of the road and pay proper attention to students who may be boarding or exiting the bus.

Of particular concern is the number of drivers who commit “fly-bys” in illegally passing school buses which are stopped with red lights flashing. This past school year saw 66 reported fly-bys, compared with 74 the previous school year.

While teachers officially returned to school Aug. 27, the first day of class in Palliser Regional School is set for Sept. 4.