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Officials take course on school bus crashes

Sheriff's Lt. Brian Moyer reviewed December's wreck in Zephyrhills and offers tips on improving response.

Published April 6, 2004

HUDSON - Officials managing the scene at a school bus accident in December near Zephyrhills could have benefited from better cooperation and a more formal system to track students, a review of the accident shows.

Sheriff's Lt. Brian Moyer, supervisor of juvenile investigations, reviewed the Zephyrhills crash Monday at the Sheriff's Office Safety Town before leading about 50 participants in a training exercise of simulated accidents.

Chief among Moyer's critiques of the Zephyrhills crash response was the scattered attention to students' whereabouts.

"Student accountability is vital in giving the kids the comfort they need and giving parents the peace of mind they need," Moyer told representatives from Pasco County Fire Rescue, the Sheriff's Office and the school district.

Most panicked parents, he said, want to remove their children from the scene as soon as possible.

"We've really got to fight their urge to grab their child and take them away," Moyer said. "We must keep track of who they are, who has control of them and where they're going."

At the Zephyrhills crash, officials lacked a formal system to keep track of students' whereabouts, Moyer said.

As a result of the crash, officials developed a computerized checklist that includes such categories as the student's seat number on the bus and injury information.

A more efficient unified command system, in which all of the major decisionmakers gather in one place to share information, is needed at crash scenes, he said. Fire Rescue and emergency management officials are accustomed to such command procedures, but many school and law enforcement officials are not, Moyer said.

At the Zephyrhills scene, there were "too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak," Moyer said. "There was no real control over where the kids were put or how they were released."

The accident happened when a school bus going to Chester W. Taylor Elementary School collided with a Chevrolet pickup about 9 a.m. Dec. 2 at Chancey and Allen roads, just west of Zephyrhills.

The truck's driver, Carol A. Fields, 45, died at the scene. Her 16-year-old son, the bus driver and at least a dozen children on board were treated for injuries at area hospitals.

The Zephyrhills scene had "natural advantages," Moyer said. The collision caused the bus to land on its side in a nearby resident's yard.

The homeowner, Jim Aiman, 38, and a few neighbors helped pull children from the bus and later distributed cell phones and soft drinks. The fence around Aiman's yard created a needed barrier so rescue officials could set up a triage. Traffic in the rural neighborhood was otherwise light.

But the next accident scene might be far different from the one in Zephyrhills, Moyer said.

Organization is key to maintaining control at any scene, Moyer said. Those responding to the crash should contain the area using tape, traffic cones or other barricades. Waiting areas for parents or media should be labeled with signs. All workers should wear bright vests or other clothing that readily identifies them as members of their particular agencies. Students should be given name tags.

Participants in the exercise received packets outlining bus crash procedures, broken down by roles and written with school administrators in mind.

Sheriff's Cpl. Mel Eakley, a school resource officer for Centennial Middle School, said he developed about 80 percent of the content for the procedures. He introduced similar procedures at Centennial during the 2002-03 school year. Then he started modifying them based on reports from the chaotic crash scene in May on Seven Springs Boulevard in New Port Richey.

No one was killed in that accident, which involved two school buses and five cars. But the scale of the crash made it a "very difficult scene to control," Moyer said.

Reacting to the Seven Springs crash, Moyer contacted Eakley in August and asked him to share the procedures he had devised. Soon afterward, all of the school resource officers were trained in bus crash procedures. When the Zephyrhills crash occurred, Moyer called Eakley to the scene.

"This was the kind of crash I made the plan for," Eakley said.

He said he could see some of his ideas about streamlining command and keeping track of students come to life.

Moyer told Monday's exercise participants the Zephyrhills crash was the biggest one he had seen during his time with the Sheriff's Office.

"I hope it's the biggest one we ever have to deal with," he said.

[Last modified April 6, 2004, 01:35:40]

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