Fleet maneuvers: Keeping school buses running when winter hits


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CHAMPAIGN — You know winter is finally here when the "STOP" arm on a school bus freezes.

"It's just one of those things you can run into," said Jeremy Roark, director of transportation for the Mahomet school district, which has a fleet of 25 buses that was about to start its 18 daily routes Monday morning, the first day back from holiday break, when that happened to one.

Fortunately, Roark had a spare bus ready to go.

"You just never know," he said.

What directors, drivers and mechanics in charge of area school bus fleets always know, however, is that the below-freezing temperatures and snow that have descended on central Illinois this week do not make it any easier to keep their yellow diesel fleets running.

Just ask John Steinkamp, assistant director of transportation for Champaign schools. He planned to get up at 3:30 a.m. today to drive the bus routes and report street conditions to district officials, who will decide whether to call off school if there's too much snow.

If it's a go today, Champaign's first day back from break, then Steinkamp's biggest challenge will be to make sure the diesel buses start in the cold. Then, it's a matter of keeping them warm and keeping the routes on time.

It's a group effort.

Mechanics and helpers will be in today before 4:30 a.m., Steinkamp said, to plug the buses into engine block heaters and then start them so they're warmed up before drivers arrive. And if there are poor street conditions, he said, the plan is for buses to make their first stops on time, even a little early, because snowy or icy routes will obviously slow travel, bumping back pick-up times at each subsequent stop.

And that means kids waiting outside longer in the cold, Steinkamp said. A computer-based calling system notifies parents along a route by phone or e-mail that a bus is running slow.

"That makes a big difference," Steinkamp said.

In Danville, Toby Wolfe, location manager for First Student Transportation, has a six-member cold-start crew that's called in on mornings when the temperature is below 10 degrees, so they can start the fleet of 62 buses early.

"We try to get them up to operating temperature for the drivers," said Wolfe, who explained that frigid temperatures take their toll on diesel engines. All the area school bus systems start using blended fuel in November before temperatures really drop.

"And any kind of stress on a part in this kind of cold, it will automatically go out. It just happens," said Wolfe, whose fleet was sitting for about two weeks over holiday break. That doesn't help, either, he said.

Each bus in the fleet was started twice a week during the break, but Wolfe said he had to replace nine batteries. And he still had some issues with the cold on Monday, Danville's first day back from break. The air brakes on some of the buses had moisture in the lines, causing them to freeze up, he said, but those have been fixed.

"The cold weather does weird, weird things," he said. "Then throw in snow or ice, and it really gets fun."

Roark said the frozen stop arm worked fine during the pre-trip check — an inspection, mandated by law, that must be done on each school bus before a trip. Roark said they start checking over certain items on all the buses in late fall before really cold weather arrives — batteries, heating systems, air brakes, wipers and anything that could go out in cold weather. But the daily mandated inspections cover a lot of those items, as well, said Carl Sebens, contract manager with Illinois Central School Bus in the Monticello district.

"The checklist that we have to do is pretty thorough, and we have to do it every day. (There are) about 35 to 40 things we have to check — all the lights and brakes and horn and wipers, oil and anti-freeze and windshield wipers. So, warm weather or cold weather, we still have to look at all that," Sebens said.

Molly Steiger, contract manager for Illinois Central School Bus in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda district, didn't have any issues with her fleet of 15 buses on Monday. She said they start routinely plugging them in to engine block heaters when temperatures dip below 20 "to be safe." The last thing you want is to show up and have no buses that run, she said.

In Monticello, Sebens doesn't have to rely too much on plugging a bus into a heater, "so the engine thinks it's August." Most of the 16-bus fleet is housed inside a heated building. The real challenge, he said, is getting the heaters running inside the buses to keep the kids warm.

All the bus transportation directors said diesel buses don't really warm up until they start moving.

"Typically, by the time they're to the first pick-up, the heaters are going well enough," Sebens said. "Diesel engines can idle for a long, long time and still not get very warm. It's just the nature of the way the engine runs."

But Roark said you don't want to get them too warm or the windows will start fogging up, causing a hazard.

And with snow and ice, Sebens said the biggest challenge — especially with the first big snow of the year — is other drivers struggling to remember what it was like the last time they drove in such conditions.

Sebens said he's always reminding bus drivers of defensive driving practices, like allowing more space between the bus and other vehicles, so if something happens ahead, there's time to stop the bus safely.

Sebens and Wolfe said they have monthly safety meetings with their drivers to discuss timely issues.

In the fall, Sebens said, it's about watching for farm machinery on the roads. In the winter, it's slippery roads. In the spring, it's muddy shoulders on the roads.

"So we try always to get ahead of the problems that might come up and try to tell our people to be aware," he said.

Wolfe said they also run daily safety messages over the bus radios, like reminding drivers of the added stopping distances needed in slick conditions.

The general rule for bus drivers, Sebens said, is to stay four seconds behind another vehicle. In bad conditions, that goes up to five or six seconds.

Wolfe said he's glad when the warmer weather returns. After Monday night's snowfall and the forecast for the rest of the week, that doesn't seem like it will be any time soon.

"It's a lot less wear and tear on the vehicles," Wolfe said, "and on the people."