It’s back to school time, and TSA is at the center of making sure our nation’s school buses are safe.
TSA Surface Inspector Hans Phifer said it’s unlikely terrorists will target school buses, but he said if it happens, the potential for a “very disturbing” outcome is great. That’s why Phifer believes it’s important for TSA to be on the front lines preparing our schools for possible suspicious activities on board student buses.
Just days before the start of the new school year, approximately 1,200 school bus drivers, maintenance and transportation support staff in the Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, participated in a big First Observer Plus™ training event, which Phifer hosted. It took place at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds.
“The goal was to train transportation employees to properly observe, assess and report suspicious activity that could be related to terrorism,” Phifer said. “The timing was perfect and intentional.”
He gave the school transportation team the knowledge they need to recognize suspicious activity, guidance to help them assess what they see, and a method for reporting unusual observations. Phifer placed a suspicious looking bag in a high traffic area inside the fairgrounds building to show how easy it is to overlook something that could be very dangerous.
“Awareness is a huge element for our drivers and (bus) attendants in keeping our students safe,” said Hillsborough County Public Schools Transportation General Manager James Beekman. “The big takeaway was helping our drivers process when and when not to call 911. We have seen programs fail in the past because of people calling wolf at every little thing. Hans did a great job looking at all the elements from different points to help the drivers facilitate their own decision-making process.”
Beekman asked TSA to come in and train his team right before the start of school. He was impressed to see how engaged his transportation team was during the training.
“Each year, we have numerous incidents where upset parents will try to board a bus, usually to try and yell at other students,” Beekman noted. “Our drivers have done a good job closing the door and mitigating the incidents, but we know the threats are real.”
Beekman hopes to partner with TSA every two years to provide this high-level training for his team.
“Driving a school bus is 100% safety in all aspects,” he said. “Our goal is to raise awareness of their surroundings at all times in all situations.”
Beekman loved Phifer’s approach, saying, “Our employees were not lectured to but rather coached up.”
Phifer described TSA’s partnership with the nation’s public school systems as good, but with more assessments, exercises and training, he believes the partnership could be even better.
No matter your job or location, Phifer said it’s important to know your surroundings and observe, assess and report. He emphasized, “Never assume anything. Always take precautions and report anything suspicious.”
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs