School bus safety has been on Virginia Giambrone's mind since the day when, more than 25 years ago, smoke began pouring out of her bus as she drove along the New York State Thruway.
She was able to pull over safely — fortunately with no students on board — to deal with a potentially dangerous mechanical defect.
"As many years as you drive, you can always learn more," said Giambrone, a member of the Frontier Central Education Association in southern Erie County.
She is standing outside a unique school bus that has been adapted and specially equipped to demonstrate bus safety and how to escape emergency situations.
The bus was driven to Albany by Donna Signs, a 25-year driver from the Owego-Apalachin Employees Association in the Southern Tier near Binghamton, for NYSUT's annual conference for School-Related Professionals.
Designed and built by her co-worker, mechanic Randy Murray, the bus has escape hatches and ladders on the outside. Inside, the rear third has been re-configured to simulate a bus that has rolled on its side, closing off some exit points for passengers.
To simulate a smoke-filled accident, Signs has participants blindfolded, then asks them to find their way out of the bus. The next and more challenging step has adults struggling to make an emergency exit through a bus window.
Signs is a respected instructor on bus safety for other transportation professionals, and has lobbied for the American Federation of Teachers — one of NYSUT's national affiliates — on student transportation issues. Signs also has turned her genuine affection for students into teaching them bus safety during physical education classes each year.
"Our union is filled with experts who make New York's schools safe places to learn," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, whose office oversees SRP issues and concerns. "Donna is an example of why members' experience and training are such assets to our schools, and why New York's bus drivers are some of the best in the country."
A long-time union activist and member of NYSUT's SRP Advisory Committee, Signs values the role drivers play in setting the right tone every day on the bus so children are ready to learn when they get to school.
"If you calculate the hours bus drivers spend with a child for 12 years, it can be more than anyone else in a school," Signs said.
"Sometimes we're the first person they see in the morning — we're counselors, observers and listeners," she explained. "If you don't love kids, you can't make it as a bus driver."