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March 2, 2012 quickly became a more hectic day than usual for Henryville, Indiana, school bus driver Angel Perry. Two super-cells, thunderstorms with rotation and a prolonged updraft, bore down on the town located 20 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky. One of the storms had a history of tornados. While halfway through her route, radio traffic showed a tornado approaching. Angel returned to the school with 11 of her remaining students. After pulling into the school parking lot, she counted off the students as they disembarked. They were safe inside the school building when the tornado struck. All the students survived.

School bus drivers do not make policy decisions. They do what they’re told and get their children to and from school safely. That may sometimes place them on the road and in harm’s way. What follows is information that may help drivers facing a storm on the road:

Know your route.  A good driver knows their route. A great driver knows their students, their parents and who is home during the day.  Another idea is to locate churches and businesses with the capabilities of housing the students.

Know the terrain. Drivers should familiarize themselves with the physical terrain along their route. As a last resort, drivers should look for flat terrain far from trees, power lines, light poles and other falling hazards. Drivers must avoid overpasses and should be wary of sheltering in ditches as they may quickly fill with rainwater.

Know what to do. The transportation department should have emergency plans developed, and drivers must be familiar with them. The plans should include general steps for the driver.

Respond.  A local news station posted a link to Angel’s radio chatter. Throughout the incident she remained very calm and kept her voice controlled as to not frighten the children.

Maintain accountability. Drivers should always have an idea of how many children they have on board.

Recover.  A tornado leaves a lasting impact. The transportation director should arrange with local public safety agencies to provide Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) services to all fleet employees. This “psychological first aid” can assist drivers to cope with the stresses of a traumatic incident.

Just moments after Angel got her kids to safety, the tornado picked up her 33,000-pound school bus and threw it 300 yards down a hill into a diner. It is easy to imagine the tragic outcome had children still been on the bus.

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