School Bus Plunge (On Purpose)

I spent most of the day Sunday working at the scene of a school bus that plunged (buses always “plunge”!) over the side of a steep embankment on Ouray County’s famous “Million Dollar Highway” below Red Mountain Pass.

This Was Only a Drill

The good news is, we pushed the bus over; it was a field training exercise for Ouray County EMS, which ran the exercise, the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, our vehicle extrication team, the Ouray Fire Department, the county sheriff’s department, and a few others mixed in for good measure, including representatives of two adjacent counties.

Screen grab from the video below. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

We even had mock victims to save; 15 people who were made up with fake injuries and inserted into the bus (yes, after it was sent over the side, and after it was stabilized to ensure no one got hurt for real).

I’m a volunteer for our EMS system, but I actually worked it via my “other” volunteer job: I’m the county communications guy, and it was my responsibility to ensure everyone had the ability to communicate. We used six different channels to do it.

Once we had everything in place, I didn’t have all that much to do, so I ran around with my camcorder and shot a bunch of video — including footage of the bus going over. It’s a fairly wild shot (there’s a slow-motion of it at the end), and the following video puts it all into perspective for you:

And by the way, yes: my wife is in there too, if you know where to look. 🙂

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33 Comments on “School Bus Plunge (On Purpose)

  1. Randy, you and your cohorts in the emergency services are my heroes! I thank you and your brethren across the country for the service y’all provide.

    BTW, was the duck tape across the “driver’s” mouth put there to prevent him from screaming as he was so rudely pushed over the edge?

    I made sure to include a close-up of that, as well as the bus model being “Volunteer”. Just because we’re doing serious business doesn’t mean we don’t have some fun sometimes too! Especially [cough] when I’m around. -rc

  2. Randy, as a fellow emergency worker (I volunteer with the State Emergency Service here in Victoria) I can appreciate how vital these preparedness exercises can be, and it looks like you guys handled it extremely well. Keep up the good work!

  3. Having some familiarity with that area, I’ve got to ask: will you be pushing a snowplow over the side, to practice for the (hopefully, never-occurring) next accident at the Riverside Slide?

    (By the way, did you know that C.W. McCall lives in Ouray?)

    Snow is too cushy to bother with — we only worry about ice!

    C.W. McCall’s real name is Bill Fries Jr.; “CW” is radio lingo for Morse Code, and McCall is homage to a radio callsign. McCall, who became famous with his hit Convoy, was Ouray’s mayor from 1986 to 1992. He didn’t seek a third term. He’ll be 80 this year. -rc

  4. Interesting. I’m also EMT and Mountain Rescue trained (yes I’m in the Tennessee Valley, but I lived and worked in the Santa Cruz Mountains and “play” in the Sierras) and I thought the exercise was a completely excellent idea. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m forwarding this to some mates around Tahoe, in Santa Cruz (Boulder Creek, CA actually) and here in this Valley. Frankly, I could use a little more practice anyway (my rope work is particularly atrocious these days).

    Thanks for adding that to the This Is True mailing this week.

    Oh, as a side note, I have family in Ouray. I see from the video why they love it so much there.

  5. Bless you guys.

    EMTs I respect more than almost everyone. Emergency workers in general. I don’t know a one who would be happy if their job wasn’t needed at all.

  6. Man, you guys are brutal to your bus drivers out there! First you duct tape their hands to the steering wheel, then cover their mouths so they can’t scream? 😉

    (And then finally you push them off a cliff!)

    It gets worse: we never even paid that guy! -rc

  7. I just got certified in the basics of the Incident Command System, which it looked like you guys might be using for this. It made me think of the exercises we just did to familiarize ourselves with it (I’m not in emergency services, I work in office support for public safety so I also have to be prepared for support functions) though we didn’t do quite as much work on ours.

    Looks like the kind of thing that is kind of fun when you know it isn’t real.

    Yep, just so. ICS is part of the National Incident Management System, which is one of the better programs adopted by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). It provides for a common structure among all agencies so they can work together more easily, communicate using the same concepts and ideas, and fits local responders seamlessly into state and federal teams so that their time is spent more on actually helping in a disaster, and less on figuring out how to work together. -rc

  8. As we are celebrating EMS Appreciation at the hospital where I work, I figured I would pass it on to you for your volunteer work with the local EMS!!

    Way To Go!!

    EMS Appreciation Week this year was May 18-24 — our exercise was on its first day.

  9. I remember as a kid getting my hands of a compilation of National Lampoon’s “True Facts” columns. They had a couple of pages devoted to headlines about bus plunges. Apparently, buses have always plunged. Never a careen or dive or even a prosaic drive; they always plunge.

  10. Thank you for posting this video on your site (via you-tube) and mentioning it in your email. I started back up with EMS and Fire a few years ago, and have been following your mentions of your EMS experiences in your emails. We are participating in an aircraft Mass Casualty Incident in early June, and this posting has me looking forward to our upcoming training. I’ll be sending a link to this page to my training officers as an idea for future training.

    Its good to see your posts as a volunteer. In this area, volunteerism is dwindling. Keep up the good work.

    Yeah, it’s always hard to find good volunteers. Yet emergency services is so satisfying, and the band of brothers & sisters is a close one. Highly recommended. -rc

  11. Thanks for posting the bus rescue info. I’m not an EMT, just a search manager for our county SAR. I think it is amazing how many people are involved in some form of emergency services, either paid or as a volunteer. Good job Randy and thanks for what you do. Especially since I will be taking my UTV to Ouray next fall.

    What do you mean, you’re “just” a Search-and-Rescue manager? You find them and get them out so EMTs can do their thing! All are necessary parts of the team, Bob. -rc

  12. I think it is great that you perform such realistic accident re-enactments. As a former volunteer fireman I found these very helpful when we had to do with the real thing. Since I have become disabled, due to a neck injury, I can no longer perform such community service.

    One thing that I am curious about is what did you do with the bus once the exercise was completed?

    It was hauled off as scrap, which was its destiny anyway. -rc

  13. Randy, thanks for the video. Reading about the practice is ok, but seeing it in action brings home how difficult it is to go in and rescue people in situations like that.

  14. Two items. 1) How did they get the “victims” to the bus? Did they have to go down the rocky and steep grade or was there some other access? Just curious.

    2) Your voice is very calming. I bet you do a great job of keeping folks calm in an emergency. They are lucky to have you! Keep up all you do.

    1) It’s difficult to see in the video, but you can see (after the bus is pushed over) a road at the bottom. The bus was pretty close to the bottom, as expected, so the volunteer victims just walked up to the bus and climbed in (through the windshield, which was removed by the rescue team for the purpose).

    2) I’ve always been a calm, self-assured type. Add to that several years in police work, and several years in EMS in my “previous life,” and I don’t get all that excited. So yes: part of my role is to bring calmness not just to the patient, but to the lesser experienced EMTs whose hearts race on every call, since it’s a pretty novel situation for them. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would notice here, though! -rc

  15. We just went through a mock disaster called “broken Wing”. It involved most local agencies, along with dozens of volunteers to play the part of victims. Amateur Radio was heavily involved also. Was Amateur Radio involved in the school bus plunge?

    Not for this, no: we don’t bring in hams for accidents and such, only “disasters” — things that go on for more than a day. Our Emergency Planner is a big proponent of using hams in disasters, and I happen to be the county liaison between disaster officials and the ham teams. -rc (K0RCC)

  16. I think your wife must have been the pretty lady in the red hat with the clipboard. : )

    Close. My wife is the woman next to her. She is wearing a green vest. -rc

  17. I spent thirty years in Fire/Rescue. No matter which department or volunteer organization I was with, from the sixties to the nineties, planning and simulation has been a part of training. When I was in Los Angeles, canyon rescue was a necessity and we had no end of cars going “downhill”, thus drills were a moot point. You learned by doing.

    Groups and individuals who donate the items needed for that training, houses for burning, buses for crashes, cars for Jaws of Life use, need to be commended as well as those doing the training. Without them, training would be simply book reading and “what if” situations being discussed.

    I still remember the heart racing rush from my younger days. My “mentor” taught me how to relax myself so my patients wouldn’t mimic MY panic. That internalization is a big problem with EMS people. I now have some serious heart and other health-related problems that have been diagnosed as PTSD. You, and all other volunteers in the country, have my admiration. I’ve been there. Were it not for volunteers, many homes, lives and livelihoods would be lost for want of a paid department. I salute you all.

    Yep, it’s great that people will donate this kind of stuff. We had had a passenger bus lined up for a scenario, but the bus company’s lawyers nixed it. So their CYA attitude deprived us of the experience needed to help their customers in case of an accident. >:-( -rc

  18. Very nice video.

    But 6 channels? One per agency I would assume. One of the things that the Minneapolis disaster people found was that going to 800MHz let them manage the scene with two channels if I remember correctly.

    Check out the Minneapolis fire departments’ actions on the I35W bridge collapse last August!

    They coordinated the efforts of 11 counties and a dozen communities in a marvelously well fashion, in part because of such training exercises on an on-going program.

    Increasingly, multiple agencies are involved in anything major. Their operations team includes finance, media relations, and other essential but often overlooked parts of any organization.

    Emergency teams operations are like movies, they begin somewhere. The situation gets awful, without warning. Then the team is assembled and their analysis and action efforts begin. First nobody knows much–at least anyone who can tell about it (this time is now much shorter due to cell phones,) in I35W incident, the fire commander was on a motorcycle, on his way to the Twins game, he diverted and when to a bridge down river of the scene and set up a command post (which displeased the Homeland inSecurity people.)

    They made a couple of videos of the incident–there was LOTS of video available! (At some point soon it will be possible to backtrack anything to it’s ‘source’ by examining available video. While video evidence may or may not become enough to convict, it will make it much easier to track things. There ARE good aspects to 100% surveillance. Imagine losing your 2-year-old at a major theme park. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could call park security and ask them to locate her? And have them tell you real time, that she is 20′ from you around the corner?

    We need even better emergency response than ever–since the President pulled the National Guardsmen into service, we have lost a major aid in handling disasters–one which has not been replaced.

    Disasters tend run in a declining numbers as their intensity rises. Very small ones (say, paper cuts) are extremely common, and large ones like broken legs are more common, but 9.0 earthquakes and category 5 hurricanes are relatively uncommon, and huge asteroid impacts have become extremely rare.

    As our society covers the globe, disasters can be more easily handled than ever, because the likelihood of a disaster that affects more than a small portion of the possible emergency response team, is very rare–but we do not always, or even often, use the resources which would be available if we were not out there killing each other.

    Which would you rather your child or yourself have as a profession: firefighter or infantryman? Saving lives and property or destroying them?

    Impressive exercise all round, especially doing it without any injuries!

    (Oh, ya, school buses in particular always plunge because they are so heavy–the old standard design is like steel tube.)

    You’re comparing apples and oranges when you put a VHF simplex and repeater system up against a trunked 800 MHz system. In trunked systems, “channels” are the physical infrastructure, and two “channels” can handle a much larger number of “talk groups”.

    But the bottom line is no, not one per agency. Rope teams need a dedicated channel to coordinate rescue. A command channel is used by the incident commander to organize teams; team leaders use separate channels to coordinate their teams. And all of this should be done off the dispatch channel — dispatchers don’t need to hear chatter. They do need to hear calls from the incident commander for resources. It adds up, and the function of the communications coordinator is to ensure everyone who needs to talk can do so, that those who don’t need to talk shut the heck up, and that the channels in use don’t interfere with each other.

    With 800 MHz (and other non-compatible) systems, we have a further function: patch together systems so that someone on 800 that needs to talk to someone on VHF can do so. We do have that equipment in our Comm Van, but we didn’t need it for this simulation. -rc

  19. I have been in Mountain Rescue for the past 5 years here in Washington state, and applaud your volunteerism and EMS work. It’s good to see exercises such as these, and testing the coordination and cooperation that is the single most important piece to making these rescues what they are, instead of clusterf@#$s. You speak the truth to Charles when you say how many channels are needed and who talks to who on what channel. I was in the comm van on one exercise and it just about wiped me out mentally, much more so than being in the field attending to the subjects. Good on ya, mate!

    After awhile, you learn what you can tune out, and what you need to hear. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it keeps you from going crazy…. -rc

  20. Great note about adrenaline, Randy — that’s a lot of why anybody should train for emergencies (or combat), since those who haven’t are clueless about why they’re so agitated on a real scene, including law enforcement (think freeway chases here in SoCal, and the ass-kicking Rodney King got when they finally got him stopped; that’s gotta be a big piece of it).

  21. I’m wondering about some reality details in your exercises. In this instance, it appears all parties have arrived in preparation. In a real incident, the various agencies will not arrive at the same time (I know this isn’t news to you). Was participation staged such that it reflected response times?

    No, since we had scores of volunteers there for what was already going to be a long, long day. We do know that the first ambulance will be by itself for at least 20 minutes (assuming the other one is available!), and that it will take a long time for the cavalry to arrive. The idea isn’t to exercise being alone, the idea is to exercise working together with disparate teams from other places who might have different ideas about how to do things. -rc

  22. I’ve driven and ridden the road from Silverton to Ouray several times. It would be an incredibly beautiful ride/drive if you could afford to take your eyes off the road for even a second. No, not a good idea. Your video did surprise me though — I just assumed that if you went over the side, you were not going to survive or be rescued — you, your bike and everything with you was going to remain at the bottom of the chasm for a long time. Is there a way down there? Roads for the adventure rider?

    No roads. We go down from the top, just as shown here, by rope. Me? Nope! But men and women who are trained, and do it for fun on weekends. -rc

  23. Wow – it was on my birthday! I was (squawk) years old!

    And y’all made the dummy dumb. Yep, just the kind of humor I would expect.

    What is the best way to volunteer for one of these? I want to be an amputee trauma victim — you might say I was born to the role….

    And, while I have no idea if Eric “Elf” Kellogg (Huntsville, Al) will ever read this — I also lived in Santa Cruz 1987-1990, and 1994-2003. Just want to give him a Bravo Zulu. I was in the 1989 quake. Not sure he was there at the time, but the S&R and other emergency folks did an outstanding job. Fortunately, “only” 3 folks died (one was a friend of a friend) but there were injuries from mild to serious. (Compare to the death/injury rate to other country’s earthquake casualty rates. They are staggering.)

    My definition of an adventure is “an unpleasant experience that does not kill you, and if you die, you’ve had an adventure to the *very end*”. The way you rate adventures is the number of beers to tell the tale. My 89 quake adventure is at least a 40 beer story in its full splendor and glory. (There I was…)

    And please tell Mr Fries thanks for the song. I was in my car, traveling California to New Mexico one night and became part of a small convoy. It was a great trip… it was after the song came out && it kept playing in my head.

    Man… you’re that old? *grin*.

    We absolutely do use volunteers for exercises like this (and less “severe”), and yeah, you’re uniquely qualified for that specific injury. 🙂 I’d recommend finding out where your local EMTs are trained (probably the nearest community college), and/or contact the EMS provider for your area and see if they have any trainings coming up. It’s a neat way to volunteer to get your medics prepared. -rc

  24. No ARES or RACES involved?

    (For others: ARES=Amateur Radio Emergency Service; RACES=Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, similar functions from two different ham radio organizations.)

    No, we only bring in hams when it’s a prolonged event, or in the case of extended radio system outage …neither of which has happened in a VERY long time. -rc

  25. Quite an operation! Many thanks to you and everyone involved for dedicating such time and effort in the service of others.

  26. Sometimes there are people that do not recognize the value of the investment in training and planning for the “just in case.” The “cost” for all of the coordination for that one important exercise was not minimal. Many of us do not recognize that NO ONE (First Responder et al) ever wants to use that training in “real life.” Every one went home safely that day, and ideally there was not any real blood, other than some skinned knees or from banged up hands, that was left on the ground.

    Not as expensive as might be thought: the bus was borrowed (it was to be turned into scrap anyway), I think the tow truck time was donated. The experience for all (even the State Patrol sent troopers) was invaluable, even though indeed we do hope never to work such a scenario for real. -rc

  27. A “volunteer” driver with his hands taped to the wheel & his mouth taped shut? Some volunteer.

    That was for his safety! -rc

  28. Very interesting movie plus all your background info. Impressive work of everyone! One has no idea of all the efforts needed in cases like that.

  29. In the same context, if there had been anyone on the bus, they wouldn’t be “taken” to the hospital, or even “driven”…no, they are always “rushed” to the hospital.

    Heh! True. -rc


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