School bus chief: Old radios a safety issue

John Gangwer, a Shenandoah County School bus driver, holds a two-way radio microphone while parked outside Central High School in Woodstock on Monday. School officials say the bus radios are outdated and need to be replaced with a new communications system. Rich Cooley/Daily

When a Shenandoah County special needs school bus broke down in December and the driver had to walk a mile down the road for help, it was partly by chance that he had an aide to leave in charge of school children.

All seven of the county’s special needs buses have aides assigned on a daily basis, said Transportation Supervisor Marty Quigley; however, the 87 regular buses and 17 other school-owned transport vehicles usually don’t.

The breakdown wasn’t an emergency, but until the school district replaces its aging and unreliable radio system, it risks an emergency happening on a bus without an aide.

“In a situation like that, if we had an emergency on the bus,” Quigley said, speaking as if he were the driver, “… if I knew that I had an emergency and I could not get a hold of anybody, I would look for the oldest student on the bus [to leave in charge] … and I would have to leave to get help, go make a telephone call. Pray that never happens.”

In a situation like that, he said there’s no good answer.

“If they don’t have cell service, depending too on how well they know their kids … it’s a judgment call. They might have to send a high school student running,” he said.

The bus in question broke down close to Basye, near Hepner Road in Mount Jackson, Quigley said. The bus radio wasn’t working properly, and there was no cell service. The driver walked a mile to the nearest house and called the bus garage in Woodstock to send another bus.

Until the driver phoned in, Quigley said, other public school employees had no idea what happened to the bus.

“We had no contact with the bus,” he said. “Cell phones didn’t work until the driver was able to get to the closest house to use the land line. Had nobody been home, he probably would have gone to the next house.”

The following day, Superintendent Jeremy Raley met with Quigley in the transportation office to discuss what happened and how they would fix the problem.

Quigley raised the issue at last week’s joint session of School Board members and county supervisors as they were discussing the district’s Capital Improvement Plan. Quigley plans to collect estimates for a new radio system before making a formal proposal to the School Board.

Addressing this and other needs, Supervisor Cindy Bailey suggested the School Board hold over money from its 2016 fiscal budget to add to Capital Improvement dollars the supervisors will vote to approve this spring.

“You could either do raises again this year, like you did last year, or could that money be better spent on maintenance and safety issues this coming budget year?” she asked the board.

“Worry about the safety issues that we have now and have had for years — we’ve known about it, we’ve known they’re only aging — and work together to put another $450,000 into this CIP to get us closer to our goal.”

Until a decision can be reached, Raley said Shenandoah schools have no other option than to keep using a system they haven’t been able to fix because some parts have been discontinued.

“Like everything else, technology improves and gets better,” Raley said.

The district’s analog radio system is about 20 years old and was a “hand-me down” from county emergency services, which Quigley said upgraded to a newer system.

Quigley has his eye on a high band system he said Clear Channel Communications has recommended for schools.

It includes built-in GPS capabilities so the district can track the location of buses.

“It has a security measure where if somebody, say, gets on your bus or threatens the bus driver or makes a hostile movement toward the bus, it has a panic feature,” Quigley said.

The driver would push a button to communicate a silent code through a microphone, and, Quigley said, “We’ll know that there’s an emergency on the bus.”

The new system won’t make up for gaps in cell service, but he said it will make communications much easier. It also would help when school buses are used in community situations, like car crashes, weather emergencies and search parties.

“We had a situation Friday where a parent was stuck in traffic, and she called here to ask if we could get a hold of the bus driver,” Quigley recalled. After two or three attempts at reaching the driver, the bus garage finally relayed the message through another driver.

“We do a lot of unique things here to ensure the safety of our elementary school students,” Quigley said.

The School Board will meet for its next public meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 19, following a 5 p.m. presentation of its funding request. On March 19, the board will vote to approve the Capital Improvement Plan it will then present to the Board of Supervisors.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com