Rurally Speaking: Is Your Department Equipped to Handle a “Rural’s” Worst Nightmare?

By Carl J. Haddon

I am presently preparing my equipment and teaching aid checklist for a class we’re teaching in Pennsylvania next month, which gave rise to the thought for this article. Having responded to the nightmare that the class is centered around, it is one of the most challenging types of programs that an instructor can offer. My classroom checklist includes some of the following: incident command system review, triage ops review, implementing mutual aid agreements, mass casualty management review, and landing zone ops/vehicle staging review. The equipment checklist includes: traffic control devices and resources; triage supplies; light, medium, and heavy rescue equipment; and heavy-duty (rotator) tow truck(s), and personnel. The students will consist of fire, EMS, hospital, law enforcement, department of transportation, and the local school districts. The class is called School Bus Rescue. I can hardly imagine a more taxing scenario for a rural fire department (or any fire department) and its community to deal with. That said, the vast majority of us have already launched or are getting ready to launch our fleets of school buses back on to the roads—loaded with our kids and grandkids—as we start another school year.

How prepared are your department and your neighboring departments for a call involving an overturned school bus with multiple injuries and entrapments? Although I won’t go into this aspect of it, I would be remiss if I also didn’t ask how prepared is your local emergency management office, your local hospital’s emergency department, your local police or sheriff’s department, and your local school district to deal with such an incident? This type of incident typically overwhelms rural resources like ours almost instantly. Unfortunately, we see an alarming number of people doing bad things at schools today. But realistically our kids face greater risks each and every day as they go to and from school.

For the sake of this column, let’s focus on a couple of the vital pieces of equipment that we have, or don’t have on our fire trucks. One of the easiest things about school bus rescue is the actual creating access into the bus. On the other hand one of the most difficult and overlooked things is the adequate stabilization or securing of the bus itself. Job number one is always to “secure the scene,” which includes securing the bus and any other vehicles involved to make them safe for the patients and for us to work in and around.

Most of us have at least basic vehicle stabilization devices on our trucks that consist of wood, metal, or plastic chocks and cribbing. Additionally, we all carry (or should carry) some form or fashion of vehicle stabilization struts. Some of us are lucky if we can carry low- or high-pressure air bag kits. The big question I have for you is: are your department’s cribbing, struts, chocks and airbags rated to handle the weight and size of a school bus, or are they more suited exclusively for passenger vehicles and light trucks?

I understand that we can’t all afford to run out and buy the latest and greatest heavy-duty hydraulic strut sets and new low-pressure airbag sets available today.  he thing that concerns me the most is seeing crews trying to use light-duty passenger vehicle struts and cribbing to stabilize a school bus—or any bus or large vehicle for that matter. I also know that we have to play with the cards we are deal. But, rule number one is: do no harm! Using passenger car struts with one-inch Web ratchet straps and 2 x 4 pine or fir wood cribbing to try to stabilize a school bus is a recipe for disaster. Most of us don’t even have the room on board the rig to carry enough cribbing to properly deal with a school bus or large commercial vehicle.

If funding purchases for equipment is a challenge for your department, I have some potentially good news for you. It has been my experience that folks such as the school district, local utility companies, and various charity service groups will do backflips trying to help raise money to fund purchases pertaining to school bus rescue.

Please also remember that in addition to having the proper equipment, large vehicle/school bus stabilization requires specialized training in addition to that which will (or should) come from the equipment company or dealer that you purchase from. Believe it or not, in most areas, school buses for training purposes are easier to come by than you might think—as is the help in transporting them to your training grounds. After all, an overturned school bus wreck is “everyone’s” nightmare, and as such “everyone” tends to rally to help the community and the fire department be prepared.

Please feel free to reach out to me directly at, if I can be of any help with your efforts. 

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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