BONIFAY - At an emergency meeting Thursday, Doctors Memorial Hospital officials and officials from a number of agencies across the county addressed procedures they will take in the matter of school bus accidents. The meeting comes just three days after 30 students were taken to the hospital with minor injuries resulting from a school bus accident on Steverson Road.
"We wanted to see if there was anything we could do to improve on what we were doing," said DMH Administrator JoAnn Baker. "We felt like (the meeting) would pull everybody together to see if anybody could've done anything to improve on what we were doing."
A video of the students' arrival played in the conference room at DMH Thursday morning. It showed young children swathed in blankets exiting a school bus that had transported them from a resident's home near the accident, to the hospital. Officials from various agencies demonstrated a warm, calm reception to the students - many of whom appeared to be calm.
"When we arrived at the hospital, Doctors Memorial Hospital staff was waiting," said Holmes County School Board Transportation Director Jalisa Brannon, who is also the human resources director at the district. "They tended to our kids as if they were their own. So, I commend everyone involved for everything they did."
While officials praised the teamwork demonstrated across the county and city agencies involved - many saying it turned out to be a "best case" scenario - it was generally agreed that communication should be improved.
Holmes County Superintendent Terry Mears pointed out tower signal was unreliable, making it difficult to locate the scene and communicate with other agencies. He said he was without service from the time he initially got the call to arriving on scene.
"As most of you know, we can talk to the moon, but we can't talk across Holmes County on our cellphones," Mears said. "So that was a long trip not knowing (more information about what was happening). And then I was calling and sometimes I could talk and sometimes I couldn't."
He requested a two-way radio scanner from the sheriff's office.
Locating the bus was also frustrating for Bonifay Fire and Rescue officials. Assistant Fire Chief Travis Cook said dispatch told him Steverson Road and Hwy 79, however "there are like three" roads of the same name. He noted the issue may need to be brought to the attention of the Holmes County Board of Commissioners.
Emergency personnel also noted with only two ambulances available, other counties sent their ambulances when notified of the accident. The shortage of vehicles is what prompted the use of a school bus to transport the students to the hospital.
And, according to Brannon, the bus had GPS capability, however, because she was called to the scene prior to arriving at the office, she did not have access to view exactly where the bus was located. Unsure, she had to trail officials from another agency to the scene.
Despite being unable to immediately pinpoint the location, agencies arrived on scene within minutes of the accident being called in, and successfully got a head count and list of the students, preliminarily evaluated them for injuries, escorted them out of the rain to a home in the area, and loaded them on a new bus to be transported to the hospital.
They arrived to DMH by 8 a.m. with only minor injuries reported. All students, Mears said, attended school the next day.
Florida Highway Patrol charged school bus driver Amanda Stephens with driving too fast for road conditions. She is currently suspended with pay pending the outcome of an internal investigation. The case is currently still under investigation, officials said.
School district and other officials at the meeting felt Stephens demonstrated necessary precautions while driving students to school that morning.
"We are currently investigating that, but we do have her bus video and she was driving well under the posted speed for the dirt road -- even for those road conditions," Brannon said.
"I know that bus only slid 30 feet," Mears said, noting he took pictures of the scene. "I want to thank that driver for fighting that bus. She did a really good job at fighting that bus and keeping it from being worse trouble than it was."
Mears also noted two high school students helped Stephens control the situation by assisting the younger students out the exit at the back of the bus and will be recognized with certificates.