Modesto school bus gave its last to train firefighters

naustin@modbee.comDecember 1, 2013 

— Bus 3 traveled nearly 300,000 miles, delivering Modesto City Schools students to campus and safely home again, before meeting its end educating firefighters.

The district donated the 78-passenger bus to the Westport Fire Department when the bus’s elderly engine died and repairs did not pencil out, said Debbie Strom, Modesto City’s supervisor of transportation.

“It’s a great tool for training,” she said. Ramont’s Tow Service donated a tow to Westport’s station on South Carpenter Road, where the 37-foot-long yellow bus dwarfed the four-wheel donations of Ceres Pro Tow.

Tuesday night, one car rested facedown on its hood, stabilized by portable struts as firefighters considered how to pull out imaginary victims without setting off undeployed air bags.

Most trainings focus on the sticky situations that cars, pickups and vans get into, the run-of-the-mill wrecks firefighters respond to, said Westport Chief Chad Hackett. In 11 years with the department, Hackett could recall only one school bus accident, a minor scrape with a smaller bus.

Still, he said, “We try to be prepared for any emergency.” Having a school bus to train with is rare and Hackett said he made the most of it, staging several trainings with the veteran transport.

In one, firefighters faked wounds from a bus accident, allowing crews to practice offering first aid and maneuvering victims out through the narrow confines of a school bus aisle. Practice in managing a mass-casualty incident could be invaluable, he noted, especially with Westport Elementary School right next door.

Tuesday’s drill was “the final hoorah” for the bus, Hackett said. Saws sparked and mechanical spreaders groaned trying to wrestle apart the tanklike bus frame. The bus fended off hours of attacks with rescue saws, crowbars and other standard firetruck gear, yielding only small openings until firefighters started targeting emergency door hinges and other access points.

“It’s a great time for us to see what we can do with it,” he said. Without people on board, traffic snarls developing or an emergency time line, firefighters could talk over obstacles and strategies.

“Most of the time, we’re working at hip level. Here, you can see he’s got to lift a 55-pound tool over his head,” Hackett said, pointing to a firefighter muscling a mechanical spreader to pry apart a small break created at a bus window. Sparks flew from whining saws, not an option in many wrecks, where ruptured lines and tanks could be leaking flammable fluids, he noted.

After being ripped and torn by crews from three fire departments, the 7-ton bus headed to the scrap heap to give service once again. Its steel and other metals were expected to bring about $2,500 to help buy equipment and supplies for the volunteer Westport department, said Capt. Michael Sorensen.

The department runs on an annual budget of $119,000, Hackett said. By comparison, replacing the school bus will cost more than $150,000, according to district figures when retiring four aging buses in 2011.

The 1997 bus No.3 served Enochs students most recently, traveling twice a day through western areas of Riverbank and rural Modesto, said district dispatch supervisor Katie Powell. Its replacement runs as No.98.

Powell drove the bus when it was new, enjoying its quieter ride thanks to a rear-mounted engine that replaced the noisy midsection engines she drove before. “There were better acoustics. It just was not as loud,” Powell said, watching firefighters trying to breach its broad side.

No. 3’s number was about up anyway, Strom said. “It no longer met air pollution standards,” she said, and its window of clemency was closing.

The district chose to donate the bus so it could help train emergency responders, she said. This way it died a hero.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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