Vehicle Evacuation Drills

Person checking off items such as flashlights and batteries that are needed in an emergency.Head Start programs may encounter various emergency situations. It is critical for programs to have procedures in place for dealing with these special circumstances. This resource is designed for program directors and transportation managers. You will find policies and procedures to prepare for vehicle evacuations. You can also use it as a reference for other transportation safety practices.

Procedures for dealing with emergency situations and training to children and staff include:

  1. Adequate preparation for all passengers on the vehicle to allow a speedy evacuation
  2. Necessary supplies and emergency equipment on the vehicle
  3. Adequate safety knowledge and practice for all agency staff, children, and parents (45 CFR §§1303.71(b) and 1303.74)


The Head Start agency should set up a routine schedule to conduct vehicle evacuation drills. Drills occur during the program year using their emergency evacuation plan (45 CFR §1303.74(b)). Programs offering transportation services must perform at least three emergency vehicle evacuation drills per year, including one during the first week of the program year.  

An evacuation drill should be introduced in the classroom as part of the curriculum during the first week. This will prepare children for that first evacuation drill.

Two additional evacuation drills must be conducted during the program year. However, many Head Start programs choose to conduct an evacuation drill on a quarterly or monthly basis. This guarantees compliance with child safety training requirements.

Local Perspective

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 be diverse. Roads or transportation needs may present different challenges. All of these contribute to how the Head Start agency determines the best way to plan for emergency vehicle evacuations.

A Head Start agency may invite the local fire department or an emergency response group to assist with the practice of vehicle evacuations. Their knowledge may contribute to and strengthen the procedures for an emergency evacuation.

Preparing Vehicles for Emergency Evacuation

Seat Belt Cutter

A seat belt cutter might be needed if the bus needs to be evacuated immediately. All transportation staff should know the location of all seat belt cutters. When using a seat belt cutter, adults should hold the cutter in the palm of one hand. Then, 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 cover where seat belts should be cut. The location may vary, depending on the safety restraint system and the level of immediate danger. Agencies may want to approach a local junkyard to obtain permission for monitors and drivers to practice using the cutter on actual seat belts in abandoned cars.

It's important that Head Start vehicles be prepared and properly equipped for emergency evacuation. Section 45 CFR §1303.71(b) clearly requires certain safety equipment on a Head Start vehicle. These include a seat belt cutter, a fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit. Vehicles may also be required to come equipped with a flashlight, a body fluid clean-up kit, and roadway warning devices. Some programs store on the vehicle toys and picture books that can be used in certain types of emergencies with children waiting on the bus or in the safe zone. A "travel rope" may be helpful in moving children to another waiting location in an easily supervised manner.

Additionally, the aisle and doors in a vehicle must be clear of debris. Emergency exit doors must remain unobstructed at all times (45 CFR §1303.72(a)(2)). The implications of this requirement will vary based on the type of vehicle being used.

Planning a Developmentally Appropriate Evacuation Drill

It is important that the emergency vehicle evacuation drill be developmentally appropriate for all children. When planning an evacuation drill, consider the variety of individualized needs children may have. Classroom teachers and vehicle drivers can coordinate to determine the physical strength, skill, and dexterity of each Head Start child. These characteristics will affect the planning of an emergency evacuation drill.

Other needs include visual impairments or hearing impairments, emotional disturbance, speech/language disabilities, or brain injury. Programs should plan for children with autism, learning disabilities, or orthopedic impairments. Extra planning will be needed for children who use wheelchairs or other special equipment. In such a review, procedures can change to meet these individual needs.

Classroom Preparation

In the classroom, a cycle of practice allows children to learn the routine desired for a vehicle evacuation drill. Practice should be non-threatening and supportive. A model for learning at this developmental age begins with teaching a concept. Next, allow time for practice, testing for understanding, and reteaching the concept. In this cycle of learning, a child is allowed time to practice and relearn information. The end result will be children who are able to perform an evacuation drill with confidence.

Teachers can explain why an evacuation drill is important. 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 drill. Depending upon this outcome, children may continue to practice the procedures. If prepared, they may take part in an actual evacuation drill on the vehicle.

In the classroom, a mockup of the school bus/vehicle with a string or chalk outline may be part of a learning center. The vehicle's doors would be a key feature. Chairs may represent seats. Children can then practice an evacuation drill at their own pace and in a comfortable environment.

Fine motor skills will help a child with buckling or unbuckling their seat belt quickly. Classroom support for these skills can be found in many activities. For example, peg boards, scissors, and finger painting all help develop fine motor skills. Coloring, working with play dough, and sand or water play help develop the same skills. It may be helpful to have a seat belt in the reading center where children can buckle themselves up for reading

Conducting the evacuation drill

The most important and essential aspect of a vehicle evacuation drill is for children to learn how to move off the vehicle quickly and in an orderly manner. Give children praise for following the rules. Reinforce safety procedures such as walking to the exit without rushing and pushing.

A suggested sequence for rules is:

  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.

Children may be resourceful agents in a vehicle evacuation. Children who can unbuckle their seat belts may sit where they can easily exit a vehicle upon command. Their movement to exit will give visual direction to other children who may be confused. Outside of the vehicle, children can also lead others by following directions to the safe zone.

Best Practices

The National Safety Council recommends programs:

  • Secure the cooperation of local agencies (police, fire, civil defense, etc.) to coordinate efforts in the best interests of pupil safety.
  • Catalogue emergencies by type and identify locations where each type might occur.
  • Carefully evaluate the likelihood that various emergencies might arise and establish lines of authority with cooperating agencies that would assist in each case.
  • Establish alternative communication methods, such as radio, to use if cellular phone lines are destroyed during an emergency.
  • Estimate available personnel resources and equipment as well as the time required to assemble them at any given location.
  • Have a plan to help children with disabilities in emergency situations