Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Putting Children's Safety First

Sara Stack, of Department of Public Safety Local 3142, inspects school buses at more than 250 companies.

Sara Stack helps parents sleep better. She inspects school buses. Simply put, a bus can’t operate legally in the state unless she or another inspector says so. “Children’s safety, our kids’ safety, is the ultimate thing,” she says.

Stack, of Local 3142, is one of about a dozen school bus inspectors in the State Patrol. She personally oversees 250 bus companies in a territory that stretches between the Wisconsin and the Dakota borders, from Cokato on the south to Pine River on the north.

Buses stay on road longer

Although inspectors can (and sometimes do) conduct their inspections unannounced, Stack typically gives bus companies a couple of weeks’ notice before putting each bus through its mandatory annual inspection. “The goal is to make sure the school buses and drivers are operating safely,” she says. “We’re there to make sure they’re doing it.” That’s especially true these days, when economic realities mean companies and school districts don’t retire buses as quickly as they used to.

Last line of defense

Despite giving advance notice, it’s surprising what inspectors do find, Stack says. “They should be in top shape at all times, not just when we come to inspect them. Everybody’s human, but we still find major problems. For school buses, that’s unacceptable.”

In 2009,, Stack had a hand in inspecting 2,364 buses. That includes school buses and passenger vehicles of all sizes. It also includes the small passenger buses that many nursing homes and day-care facilities use.
“In every garage you go to, things are going to be a little different in how they run things,” Stack says. “I believe we are definitely needed as that second eye. Not everybody is as thorough as we are.”

The ins and outs of a bus inspection

Bus inspections are based on a point system. Inspectors use a laptop database to track every bus in their territory and how they do.

“Some things in themselves, like a leaky brake or a bad tire, put a vehicle out of service,” Stack says. A bus that fails can’t be used until the problem is repaired.

An inspection begins when a mechanic drives a bus into garage bay. First, Stack has him start a light show. In sequence, she signals to flip on the headlights, the turn signals, the eight-way flashers, and to pump the brakes.
Once Stack confirms that the lights and warnings work the way they’re supposed to, the mechanic steps out and she steps in. She sits down and tests the heater, wipers, horn and other controls. She then begins a walk-through inside the bus. “I do an overview, making sure everything’s clean, in its proper place, secured.”

She checks seats, making sure they’re bolted down. She checks doors and windows, making sure they’re aligned and that their gaskets seal. She opens the rooftop emergency exit and the back emergency door, making sure they function and that they set off an alarm. If the bus has a wheelchair lift, that gets tested, too.

Stack also makes sure the bus has all the safety equipment it’s supposed to have: a working fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit, an emergency tourniquet, a fluids clean-up kit for when kids get sick, a seat-belt cutter.

Looking for leaks, wear and tear

Inspectors often work in teams. When they do, one works the inside while the other gets the dirtier job of inspecting the chassis. On this day, Stack is on her own. So, after entering notes into her laptop from the inside inspection, she circles the bus, giving the body a once over for rust or other issues. She checks the tires, wheels and lug nuts.

Stack then drops onto a dolly and rolls under the bus. She glides along, back to front, eyeballing the drive shaft and ball joints. She checks for broken springs; worn hoses; holes in the floor; defects in the muffler or tailpipe; and for leaks in the brake lines or engine.

She rolls out the front and, flashlight still in hand, folds open the hood. There, she peers around the nooks and crannies of the engine compartment, looking for signs of trouble.

Sara Stack, who began inspecting buses in 2008, checks vehicles from top to bottom.

Adapted from an article that originally ran in the May/June 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up.

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