Emergency Preparedness for Head Start Programs Providing Transportation Services

Given the number of emergency scenarios that a Head Start program might encounter, it is critical for programs to put procedures in place for dealing with these special circumstances. Program directors and transportation managers may use this resource when establishing policies and procedures for ensuring adequate preparation of emergency evacuations and other transportation safety practices.

Note: This resource is under review.

The following is an excerpt from Transportation PathFinder.

Explanation and Background

For those children who receive transportation services as part of their Head Start program, their time on the bus are equally important as the time spent in a Head Start center in terms of both safety and educational and developmental value. Equally important to both of those benefits is adequate preparation for emergency situations on the parts of the children on the bus and agency staff associated with transportation.

Considering the number of emergency scenarios that an agency might encounter over a given program year, it is absolutely vital that the agency put into place procedures for dealing with these situations and provide training to children and staff on their implementation. These procedures include ensuring adequate preparation for all passengers on the vehicle to allow a speedy evacuation should one become necessary, maintaining all necessary supplies and emergency equipment on the vehicle, and adequate safety knowledge and practice of all agency staff, children, and parents.

It is important that the Head Start agency include families as they plan, implement, and evaluate their program's transportation services. Without the input of families, agencies will have a difficult time reinforcing safety education in an appropriate manner both at the agency and at the child's home.

Standard Practice

A routine schedule should be set up by the Head Start agency to conduct bus evacuation drills during the program year using their written emergency evacuation plan (45 CFR 1310.21(b)(5)). The concept of a bus drill should be introduced in the classroom as part of the curriculum during the first week. This will prepare children for their first bus drill during the beginning thirty days of the program year. Two additional bus drills must be conducted during the program year; however, many Head Start programs choose to conduct a bus evacuation drill on a quarterly schedule.

It is important that the bus evacuation drill be developmentally appropriate for all children. Coordination between the teacher and the Bus Driver can determine these needs. Children may have a variety of individualized needs including visual impairments, hearing impairments, emotional disturbance, speech/language, brain injury, autism, learning disabilities or orthopedic impairments. Extra planning will be needed for children with wheelchairs or other special equipment. In such a review, procedures can be changed in order to meet these individual needs. Regardless of special needs, it is absolutely vital that ALL Head Start children be included in emergency preparedness training as much as possible.

In the classroom, a cycle of practice allows children to learn the routine desired for a bus drill. Practice should be non-threatening and supportive. A model for learning at this developmental age is to teach a concept, allow time for practice, test for understanding, and re-teach the concept. In this evolving cycle of learning, a child is allowed adequate time to practice and relearn information amidst making mistakes. The end result will be children who are able to perform a bus drill with confidence.

Establishing a learning center that is a mock-up of the school bus using a string or chalk outline establishing the location of the vehicle's doors and setting up chairs as seats will allow children to practice a bus drill at their own pace and in a comfortable environment. Teachers may explain the purpose of a bus drill is to teach basic safety procedures. Children should learn simple verbal commands that are easy to follow. After sufficient practice, the Bus Driver may come to the classroom to lead a practice bus drill. Depending upon this outcome, children may continue to practice the procedures or be taken for an actual bus drill on the vehicle.

The most important and essential aspect of a bus evacuation drill is for children to learn how to move off the bus quickly in an orderly manner. The sequence for rules might consist of the following items:

  1. Listen to the driver
  2. Unbuckle your seat belt
  3. Walk to the exit
  4. Exit the vehicle
  5. Walk to a safe zone

Give children praise for following the rules, especially walking which is a safe behavior that contributes to an orderly evacuation and is quicker than rushing and pushing.

It is important to know the individual physical strength, skill, and dexterity each Head Start child has when planning an emergency evacuation drill. Fine motor skills will help a child with buckling or unbuckling their seat belt quickly, freeing transportation staff to attend to younger children. Classroom support for these skills can be found in the use of peg boards, scissors, finger painting, coloring, play dough, and sand or water play. Further, it may be helpful to have a seat in the reading center at which the reader must use a seat belt to buckle themselves up for reading.

Children may be resourceful agents in a bus evacuation. Those children who have demonstrated skills to unbuckle their seat belt may be placed in strategic locations where they can easily exit a vehicle upon command. Their movement to exit will give visual direction to other children who may be confused. Once they are outside of the bus, they can also provide leadership for others by following directions to the safe zone.

Aside from preparing children and staff for a potential emergency evacuation, it is also important that the vehicle be prepared and properly equipped as well. 45 CFR 1310(d) clearly requires certain safety equipment on a Head Start vehicle, including at least one seat belt cutter for freeing children from their restraints if the bus needs to be evacuated immediately. All transportation staff should be aware of the location of all seat belt cutters on the vehicle as well as which children should be attended to by which staff member.

A seat belt cutter is an embedded blade in a plastic housing that allows an adult to hold the cutter in the palm of one hand, place a strap between its sides, and pull it towards themselves in one even cutting motion. Training for use of a seat belt cutter should include a careful consideration of where seat belts should be cut for each Child Safety Restraint System under varying levels of immediate danger. Additionally, agencies may want to approach a local junkyard so that monitors and drivers have an opportunity to use the cutter on actual seatbelts in abandoned cars. Alternatively, some manufacturers may be willing to donate a roll of seat belt webbing for the same purpose.

Other safety supplies on a bus are essential in the event of an emergency. These include an accessible first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a flashlight, a body fluid clean-up kit, and roadway warning devices. Depending upon the nature of the emergency, some programs include toys and picture books for children waiting on the bus or in the safe zone. A "travel rope" may be helpful in moving children to another wait location in an easily supervised manner.

Another requirement may prove to be life-saving should an actual emergency occur. It is the requirement that the vehicle aisle and doors be clear from debris and that emergency exit doors remain unobstructed at all times (45 CFR 1310.15(b)). The implications of this requirement will vary based on the type of vehicle being used.

Local Perspectives

Each Head Start agency must use its own local perspective for developing emergency evacuation procedures. For example, local resources differ from community to community, the size of a community varies, the ethnicity of residents may present a diverse background, and roads or transportation needs may present different challenges. All of these contribute to how the Head Start agency determines the best way to meet the needs of the community.

A Head Start agency may invite the local fire department or an emergency response group to assist with the practice of a bus evacuation. They may also have suggestions to improve the program's procedures. It is possible that they can generate a realistic experience for children through the use of a smoke machine. Their overall knowledge may contribute to and strengthen the procedures for an emergency evacuation.