POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – With one week until the start of the new school year, Polk County Public School officials are showcasing changes to the district’s transportation system.
“My daughter personally rides one of these buses and I’m so glad we were finally able to fund this,” said Scott Reeves, senior coordinator of support services for Polk County Public Schools.
On Monday, Reeves showed reporters a newly-installed panel that runs the new 800 MHz radio system that allows bus drivers and attendants to communicate directly with emergency services.
“What we’re trying to do is avoid the issue of the driver having to relay through our dispatcher to make that conversation happen or rely on them to have a cell phone or the attendant to have a cell phone and have that cellphone be fully charged,” he said.
“There’s an orange panic button so if there’s any doubt whatsoever, they hit the orange panic button. That automatically sends a message to the ECC (Emergency Communications Center at Sheriff’s Office), bypasses our dispatch completely,” explained Rob Davis, asst. superintendent of support services for Polk County Public Schools.
The radios cost $6 million, Davis said.
In February 2018, 14-year old Terissa Gautney boarded a Polk County bus her parents say she made it through 57 surgeries in her young life. But it was a ride in a school bus that claimed her life in February 2018.
The bus driver and attendant on board panicked when the young girl who suffered from cerebral palsy had her head go too far back and cause a lack of oxygen. The driver and attendant contacted bus dispatch but did not use their cell phones to call 911.
Gautney later died.
“Timing is everything and you only have minutes,” said Gautney’s father, David Gautney.
He and Gautney’s mother, Denise Williams, advocated for the radios and a new statewide rule that requires bus drivers and attendants to be taught CPR and first aid by certified trainers.
New bus drivers must be trained this month. Returning bus drivers have until November 2020.
Davis said drivers and applicants have been willing to participate in the training.
Parents also have a new phone number to call with questions.
Call (863) 534-7300 weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Aug. 23 and one of 30 specialists will answer questions and address concerns.
Last year, Polk County Public Schools received 25,000 calls during the first week of school.
One main issue concerns the inevitable bus delays.
The call center specialists can locate a student’s bus through GSP tracking.
“Shows them where they are, ask them where their stop is and they will provide them that information that it’s about 20 minutes away [for example],” said Davis.