Keeping school bus safety on course

County's summer class helps drivers build confidence, hone skills

August 04, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Debbie Saffer, a 19-year veteran school bus driver, sports a thick gold chain and school bus charm, proof of her professional pride.

Saffer spent three hours under a hot sun yesterday instructing 45 Baltimore County school bus drivers and attendants during the county's first hands-on summer review course -- complete with obstacle course, emergency evacuation exercises and mechanical checks.

"I guess they figure I know what I'm doing," Saffer said from behind a large pair of dark sunglasses. "I've been doing it long enough."

Nationwide, school bus drivers are being held to higher standards than ever before, said Karen Finkel, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which is based in Springfield, Va. And training such as Baltimore County's summer session helps reinforce safety rules and builds driver confidence, she said.

From her station at the south end of the county's school bus garage and terminal in Cockeysville, Saffer was showing drivers how to operate a wheelchair lift.

Inside the bus, Saffer's partner, Joy Lafferty, a school bus attendant for five years, helped another group secure a wheelchair using canvas straps and safety buckles. Attendants supervise children while they ride the bus.

"You've got to make sure the chair is in there good and tight," Lafferty said.

Minutes later, Thelma McDowell, a school bus driver for three years, was seated in the wheelchair, parked four feet above the ground on a mechanical lift.

"That was scary," McDowell said as the lift stuttered into action. "Now I understand how the kids feel."

McDowell's reaction was exactly what county officials were aiming for when they dreamed up the summer course, said Bob Hedgebeth, one of five area assistants who oversee the county's 800 school bus drivers, most of whom are women.

State law requires school bus drivers to complete six hours of in-service education every year, Hedgebeth said. In Baltimore County, they meet that requirement through three-hour courses twice a year, in the summer and fall.

While classroom lectures for bus drivers on blood-borne diseases and child abuse are helpful, county officials wanted drivers and attendants to test their bodies as well as their minds this time around.

"We wanted it to be hands-on," said Hedgebeth. "We wanted them out of the classroom."

Besides the wheelchair exercise, school bus drivers drove buses through a complicated obstacle course that forced them to weave in and out of a line of orange cones and steer their vehicles through a narrow space.

Drivers also evacuated a bus, using razors to cut the belts on child car seats used for smaller passengers. They practiced hauling a disabled student to safety in a blanket.

Was the practice worth it?

You bet, drivers said.

"You're only as good as you think you are," said school bus driver Jacqueline Chavis. "You can always learn more."

In today's competitive job market, school systems are finding they must offer more support to keep qualified drivers like Chavis happy.

"Most school bus drivers are very interested in children and like to work with them and really get into their jobs," said Finkel. "But when they get an extra level of support, it really makes it work."

Baltimore County still needs drivers to fill its 1999-2000 roster, said Rita Fromm, director of transportation. Otherwise, some bus drivers could be forced to drive two routes a day.

For more information about becoming a school bus driver or attendant in Baltimore County, call 410-887-4321.

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