BARRHEAD - To help ensure the safety of students while riding the bus, Pembina Hills School Division conducts a number of exercises to prepare students for any type of emergency that may arise.
For instance, every August the division holds two “Meet the Bus” events in Barrhead and Westlock for Kindergarten students who are about to go on their first bus rides, which is typically attended by about 50 children in each community.
The division also hires a company called Safely on Board to conduct bus ridership programs in all of its schools, and twice a year, bus drivers conduct their own bus evacuation drills, running the students through rear-door and split-door evacuations where half of the students go out the front and half go out the back.
The importance of that training became clear on Nov. 2, 2021, when several logs being hauled by a truck through Barrhead came off the vehicle and effectively impaled a Pembina Hills school bus carrying children. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.
“So, when we watched the video of that accident, we can see the driver stayed very calm, the kids stayed calm, they did a split door evacuation, and nobody was hysterical. I am so proud of the kids and of the driver,” said director of transportation Shantelle Haitel, while discussing the incident at the April 13 board meeting.
Furthermore, there were accolades conveyed to Pembina Hills for the swiftness and relative calm of the evacuation by emergency services who responded to the scene, added director of human resources Brett Cooper.
“If anything, it might have helped reinforce with our drivers the importance of doing evacuation drills,” Haitel said.
Bus safety was one of the topics covered by Haitel while presenting the 2021-2022 Transportation Assurance Report, which was essentially a run-down of the activities of the department on an annual basis.
Haitel said a total of 2,494 students are registered to ride Pembina Hills’ buses this year, up from 2,306 in 2021.
The average distance between a student resident and a school of attendance in 2022 is 18.58 kilometres, which is a slight increase from the previous year’s figure of 18.26 kilometres.
A total of 15.4 per cent of students have one-way bus rides lasting one hour, though that is a decrease from the 17.2 per cent of students doing the same.
However, the average amount of time students ride the bus one way is 39 minutes, which is exactly the same amount of time spent riding the bus last year.
These statistics demonstrate how rural the Pembina Hills School Division is and how offering a 20-minute bus ride for all students is geographically impossible, Haitel indicated.
In addition to the staff that work within the transportation department, there are of course the bus drivers – 34 full-time drivers on the Barrhead side and 30 full-time drivers on the Westlock side, along with four full-time contract drivers.
There are also 42 casual bus drivers, though Haitel warned against being too impressed by that number, as some of them may only drive once or twice a year.
On the subject of safety, Haitel said “fly-bys” continue to be a problem for the division, referring to incidents where vehicles pass a bus while a student is either getting on or off.
Between September 2021 and February 2022, Pembina Hills’ drivers reported 37 fly-bys, a decrease of 42 from the previous year.
“Having one is too many. We never want to have any,” Haitel noted.
To combat this problem, Pembina HIlls experimented with installing mounted cameras on two buses at the cost of $950 each, in the hopes of capturing footage of fly-by drivers to provide to the RCMP.
The problem is that the RCMP can rarely use the footage to get a clear enough image of the offending vehicle to issue fines, Haitel indicated, noting there were only a couple instances where the police were able to charge fly-by drivers and the fines actually stuck.
Sometimes that’s down to lighting — buses are on the road pretty early, after all – and sometimes that’s down to weather, with the camera being blocked by snow.
“They’re good tools to have when conditions are perfect, but they’re not showing themselves to be super-valuable all the time,” said Haitel.
To this end, Pembina Hills is now experimenting with dash-cameras. Haitel indicated they were able to acquire two free dash-cams to use in a pilot, though if they are successful at recording fly-by drivers, they would cost $600 per unit per year.
Road conditions and weather are another challenge for the transportation department, as this year has been particularly erratic — Haitel said there was one night where they had nine buses get stuck on either the road or in the ditch.
Incidentally, Haitel noted earlier in the presentation that they have a light-duty tow truck and a heavy wrecker that they employ when, say, buses get stuck in the ditch.
In July, Pembina Hills will actually host a Wreckmaster tow truck training course for both their mechanics and other school divisions across the province. (The course only covers the towing of school buses, since that is the relevant part for school jurisdictions.)
As is the case elsewhere in the province, bus driver recruitment continues to be a challenge, though less so for Pembina Hills than other jurisdictions that can’t even run some of their main routes.
Finally, Haitel said transportation expenses have gone up substantially this year, and not just with fuel but also with parts and buying buses.
Pembina Hills board chair Judy Lefebvre asked Haitel if the department had ever investigated the costs of owning and operating their own buses versus contracting buses.
Haitel indicated they had done such a comparison and found that contracting would be far more expensive; in fact, other school divisions had warned them away from going down that route.
“When I talk to other divisions, they also say, ‘Don’t change what you’re doing,’” she said.