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The City Journals

Decommissioned buses repurposed for rescue training

Jul 25, 2018 02:24PM ● By City Journals Staff

Rescue teams learn that buses are not easy to tear apart. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected] 

Emergency saws squealed and metal whined as rescuers tore through the yellow skin of a school bus. 

“It’s not an easy task to get these to come apart, which is a good thing because we want our kids to be safe,” said Herb Jensen, Jordan School District transportation director. 

District officials recently provided 11 decommissioned buses to be used for rescue training exercises. 

“This type of training is pretty rare on this type of vehicle,” said Dustin Dern, a battalion chief with the Unified Fire Heavy Rescue team. 

In addition to the heavy rescue team, members of local fire departments, swat teams and highway patrol were invited to participate in bus rescue training, as well. Wes Harwood, an engineer with the West Jordan Fire Department said it is important for them to see the buses up close and have hands-on experience of cutting into them so they will be more proficient in the case of a real situation. 

 “Personally, I’ve never been on an actual school bus accident,” said Harwood. “That’s the interesting thing about our job—we need to be prepared for everything. I may never personally go on a school bus accident in my career, but I might go on one today.” 

While many aspects of a bus rescue are the same as with a passenger car, which they get a lot of practice on, Dern said buses are more challenging because of how they are built. They are bigger, heavier and harder to stabilize. 

Rescuers practiced cutting extra exits into the sides of the buses as well as removing seats and windows. Law requires buses to be reinforced on the top and bottom and on the sides with two iron bars. Utah law requires twice as many reinforcement bars.

“There’s a lot of reinforcement under the skin, so it’s just difficult,” said Dern. “A lot of our typical tactics for regular motor vehicles don’t necessarily work on buses, so we have to adapt some of those techniques.” 

WJFD officials also used the opportunity to test new battery-powered equipment and were pleased with their performance.

“We’re able to get into the buses quicker, more efficiently and safer now,” said Harwood. 

In most cases, the rescuers would not have to make as many cuts as they did during their practice scenarios.

“Realistically, a bus is much easier to access than a passenger vehicle because there are so many safety features, there are so many emergency exits and they are so big,” Harwood said. “It’s not really an issue if we can get inside; it’s learning how to do it very efficiently.”

Teams also practiced lifting the body of the bus with airbags. This technique is used when a car is lodged underneath a bus, which happened last February when a car hit a stationary school bus at estimated speeds of more than 50 mph and became wedged underneath. 

An accident involving a school bus is a “high-risk, low-occurrence” situation, said Harwood. It is less likely to occur, but if it did, there would potentially be a higher number of people to rescue.

 “Our first goal is to get in there without having to cut anything,” he said. “Those kids are going to be scared, and we don’t want to scare them any more than we have to. So, the safest, quietest, quickest, easiest way to get in there is going to be our first option. So realistically, cutting them is our very, very last case scenario.” 

Additional training with the remaining school buses is scheduled for August. They will practice with buses tipped on their sides and on top of other vehicles. Using simulated victims, rescuers will get hands-on training lifting buses off other vehicles to access passengers. 

Jensen said he hoped the rescue teams would never have a reason to apply what they learned through their training exercises. 

“They’re learning how sturdy school buses are and how well built they are, which is as it should be because they’re protecting our kids,” he said.