How does Palliser decide to cancel bus service?
Every winter when bus service is cancelled, Palliser faces questions about how these decisions are made. The answers are found in Palliser’s Board Policy 19 (Inclement Weather) and Administrative Procedure 555 (Bus Transportation During Inclement Weather).
Yet these documents don’t quite capture the scope of networking that occurs in the critical minutes between 5 and 6 a.m. It’s a tale of neighbours talking to neighbours, office staff monitoring Internet sources, and good old first-person reports from people who “physically go out in a vehicle to see what it’s like,” says Transportation Services Supervisor David Shaw.
The process usually starts the night before with monitoring of forecasts and weather advisories. If the forecast calls for potentially dangerous conditions, he calls drivers to put them on warning.
LARGE DIVISION DIVIDED INTO FOUR REGIONS
Palliser buses serve a large area that spans roughly 200 kilometres north to south. As a result, an assessment of conditions occurs in each of four areas:
- Arrowwood, Milo and the colony schools of Riverbend, New Dale and Arrowwood at the far north;
- Brant, Vulcan, Champion and colony schools of Brant, Wild Rose and Mialta;
- Barons, Huntsville, Coalhurst, Picture Butte, Noble Central and Gold Ridge Colony;
- and Sunnyside, Coaldale and the colony schools of Lakeside, New York and Rock Lake to the south.
“There are four distinct microclimates, and the conditions can be quite different from one area to another,” Shaw said.
NETWORK INVOLVES MANY EYES ON CONDITIONS
Shaw starts by calling seven key bus drivers and his administrative assistant who collect information from their own sources. For the drivers, this involves calling on parents near and far along their own route, as well as other bus drivers in their region, and may involve taking a drive to see for themselves. Meanwhile, Shaw’s assistant Sherrie Shears begins monitoring 511 Alberta road reports, the Weather Channel and Environment Canada for various communities.
Shaw contacts Lethbridge and Vulcan County officials, as well as Volker Stevin, the company contracted to maintain highways to get their take.
By 5:45 a.m., having heard back from the network, Shaw makes a recommendation about whether buses can safely run, and he phones the Superintendent.
Following Shaw’s advice, the Superintendent makes the ultimate decision which is then relayed by Shaw and Shears to key bus drivers across the division, who then call all other affected drivers. Each driver then begins fanning out the information by phone to each parent on the route.
While those calls are being made, Shaw calls radio stations, Coaldale Christian School and Holy Spirit School Division officials who also use Palliser bus services, and other department staff. Shears updates Palliser’s website and bus status apps, and notifies others, including principals, any spare drivers filling in for the day and the Town of Coaldale, if affected. By the time these calls start, it’s likely still only 6:15 a.m.
KEEPING CHILDREN SAFE
When bus service is cancelled, it’s cancelled for the full day. Individual bus drivers have the discretion to not run or abandon completion of the route if conditions warrant.
Aside from road conditions, routes may be cancelled if the temperature and wind chill combine for -40 C or colder.
Even then, Palliser’s practice is to keep schools open with even limited staff to ensure no child arrives at school, unaware of a closure, and is left in the cold. Following a major blizzard in December 2013, hundreds of students across Palliser arrived at school.
Shaw says the decision to attend school in a winter storm is very much an individual one. Employees and bus drivers can determine for themselves if roads are impassable; parents can decide to keep students home, even if the school is open.
Ultimately, the safety of students is the priority. Shaw says it’s absolutely vital that students come to school dressed for the elements. A warm bus doesn’t stay warm long if it encounters mechanical issues.