A TSA representative presented an overview of the administration's Intermodal Security and Transportation Exercise Program (I-STEP) as a vital resource to help school districts and private bus companies develop table-top training to prevent criminal and terrorist attacks on and using school buses.
Paul Pitzer, branch chief for policy, plans and stakeholder coordination within TSA's Highway and Motor Carrier division, explained to the attendees of the STN Webcast event that the main objective of I-STEP is to establish communication systems with school bus drivers. The program meets Homeland Security and 9/11 Act requirements. Congress required TSA to complete a school bus threat assessment as part of the 9/11 Act. The threat assessment was completed last year, and can be requested on an individual school district or bus operator level directly from TSA.
"These [I-STEP table tops] are a great way to get the most bang for your buck," said Pitzer of the federally-funded block grants that are awarded to states.
He added that school districts must actively request funds from states for specific training exercises rather than simply expect the money to be awarded for those purposes.
Over the last two years, TSA has conducted six table-top exercises in California, Florida, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. The feds partnered with more than 70 school districts, private bus operators, state and local law enforcement, and state departments of education to plan the table-top exercises that dealt with such incidents as school bus hijackings, school evacuations and terrorist activities and to develop prevention objectives and strategies.
Pitzer said the bottom line is driving communication between transportation stakeholders, TSA, law enforcement and first responders, parents, and essentially all others in the community concerned with the safety of student transportation to share information. He also explained the concept of fusion centers set up by the Department of Homeland Security along with state and local law enforcement and state emergency management agencies to gather the information, analyze it and disseminate it to state agencies.
He added that lessons learned from the six table-top exercises, which have tended to focus more on preventing incidents rather than responding to them, have proven that the flow of information must improve, especially between school districts and transportation departments, or the private bus companies they contract with. This lack of communication can be especially troublesome with regard to field trips or transit partnerships, which Pitzer said should be included in school security plans just like regular school bus transportation.
Other concerns uncovered in the exercises include rural school districts, especially those that are in close proximity to state borders, and other school districts on the other side, with which there could be little if any communication.
"That artificial state line doesn't mean anything to the bad guy," Pitzer said.
He advised that school districts develop their own threat-level charts to monitor safety in the area and to adjust accordingly. Pitzer also said students with cell phones on buses poses a problem in the case of an emergency as districts attempt to control communication with parents and the media. Another concern pertains to lot security. While he cited GPS as a helpful tool, he recognized that a relative handful of the more than 480,000 buses nationwide are equipped with the technology. Pitzer said the exercises showed that there is little if any standardization of school bus security on district property, especially in rural areas where bus drivers may own the vehicles and park them at their homes.
The webcast "School Transportation Security: Learning Through Exercises" is archived on STNOnline for 24/7 viewing and sharing with staff members. Registration is free of charge but toll charges apply. William Arrington, GM of TSA's Office of Highway and Motor Carrier, was scheduled to present a workshop on school bus security action items on July 25 at the STN EXPO.