This fall, Hamilton County will reimplement mandatory school bus emergency evacuation drills with students, a safety precaution that has been neglected for an indefinite period of time.
Although bus drivers have been trained in emergency evacuation processes, no physical drills with students were conducted last year, said Mike Quinn, Chattanooga manager for Durham School Services, which supplies approximately 80 percent of drivers in the Hamilton County school system. Durham drivers will now be required to practice emergency evacuation drills with elementary students twice per year, said Quinn.
Hamilton County Department of Education Transportation Supervisor Ben Coulter said independent contract drivers will also likely be required to perform the drills with elementary students. Emergency evacuation drills are not required by law in the state of Tennessee and Hamilton County Department of Education officials are unsure of when the drills were most recently required by drivers.
No drills will be required with middle and high school students or before field trips, said Quinn.
Venita Jensen, former Durham School Services of Chattanooga Safety Committee member and Hamilton County bus driver for four years, said during her tenure with the county she physically practiced an emergency evacuation drill with other drivers once, but never with students.
"It took a huge accident in Nebraska for them to change their thinking," she said. "I would hate to see that happen here."
Jensen, who was driving a Nebraska school bus in 2001 when a fatal school bus accident caused four fatalities, said she was surprised that Hamilton County did not require emergency evacuation drills. According to her, studies show that in an emergency, drivers only have 1.5 seconds per passenger to safely evacuate the bus.
After the bus accident in Nebraska, Jensen said the state began requiring a rear door evacuation drill before every field trip and before the start of any sports season where students would be transported by bus. A timed and evaluated drill where the driver was blindfolded to simulate the effects of smoke from an engine fire was also required in addition to the regularly scheduled emergency evacuation drills for regular bus riders in elementary, middle and high school.
Jensen said during her tenure with Hamilton County, she never evacuated students in an emergency situation but has seen evacuations caused by heat.
"It was obvious they had never practiced and the kids didn't understand the danger," said Jensen. "It's like telling someone how to play a piano, but until they do it, they don't understand."
According to Coulter, evacuations in Hamilton County are rare; the only engine fire during his tenure was two years ago and there weren't any students on the bus, he said.