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Training prepares drivers for any emergency

By Staff | Aug 21, 2010

Cynthia Edison and Nadine Gore fought to see through the thick fog of smoke that filled the school bus Thursday as they hunted for student passengers.
With only two minutes to find all five students, the women searched each row and under every seat using their eyes, and hands, as best as possible.
When the women exited the bus, they were victorious: all five found.
Edison and Gore, both employees with the Lee County School District, were participants in a training exercise held at the North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts. The exercise, organized by the school district with the assistance of the Cape Coral Fire Department, was designed to hone the skills of staff by simulating a real fire emergency.
“It really makes you think with the smoke,” said Gore, a special needs bus driver who has been with the Lee County School District for 21 years. “You really know the bus, but trying to find them in that smoke, that was hard.”
Edison, a special needs attendant who has been with the district for 13 years, agreed that the smoke made the exercise harder than she imaged. Special needs attendants ride the buses with the special needs children.
“You really have to look for those kids in that,” she said, adding that they were forced to rely on their hands as a tool to search out the “students.”
The students were teddy bears, stuffed animals and dolls located in various locations throughout the bus. One was in a wheelchair, others were strapped into safety vests or child safety car seats, and some were under the seats, “children” who had became scared of the “fire and smoke” and hid.
Nena Garrett, supervisor of safety and training for the Lee County School District, reported that about 650 to 700 employees would participate in the training Thursday. Divided up into two sessions, the employees consisted of special needs bus drivers, special needs attendants and substitute drivers.
The school district employees more than 800 school bus drivers.
“We’re trying to be proactive in case a critical situation like this were to occur,” she said. “We’re trying to give them the experience if this were to happen.”
The participants first reviewed a video on school bus evacuation, then took part in the smoke-filled bus drill. Garrett said the exercise emphasized some important points for staff to remember, including know where your students are, know the seating chart on your bus and know that some youth may hid.
The exercise definitely got Sandra Rodriguez’ nerves going.
“I was nervous, but I kept my cool,” the special needs bus driver said.
Rodriguez also had to feel her way through the smoke to find the students.
“It was very hard to see,” she said, adding that she would have yelled out for the students in a real crisis. “It would have been easier if I could hear them.”
Still, she called the drill a good experience.
“I know how to act now,” Rodriguez said. “This was so cool.”
Battalion Chief John Spicuzza, of the Cape Coral Fire Department, said a school bus is a small compartment so a fire can quickly fill one with smoke. The drill showed the staff how hard it can be to work in that environment.
“It’s a time thing,” he said. “I think the focus is you have to act fast.”
This was the first time that the Lee County School District had organized the smoke-filled bus drill. Garrett said it appeared the staff was getting tired of the same drills like wheelchair tie downs, so she came up with something new.
“I wanted to do something different,” she said.
At the end of Thursday, Garrett called the drill a success.
“I got a lot of positive feedback,” she said.
“The majority of them found all five ‘kids,'” Garrett added.
One problem that officials encountered was the equipment used to fill the bus with the smoke left a wet residue on everything, making for a slippery situation for the participants.
“The floors got slippery,” she said, adding that between the two sessions they got out some dry mops and tried to clean up the wetness some.
According to Garrett, the district will likely organize the drill again.
“I think that we’ll do it again,” she said, adding some change may need to be made with the smoke equipment. “There’s always room for improvement.”