MUSCATINE – At 4 a.m., rain, sleet or moon shine, Lori Dusenberry can be found in the drivers seat running country roads served by the Muscatine Community School District. She is the supervisor of the district’s Transportation Department. She wants to be one of the first people out on these back roads. Before the buses will run, she’s got to make a call.
Yea or nay. Yea, conditions are clear and driving is safe. Or nay, the students are better off staying in their homes.
“It’s not necessarily whether buses can drive them safely,” Dusenberry said. “We, of course take into account the buses. But our buses weigh between 35,000 and 40,000 pounds. Snow isn't a huge factor for them. We've got the weight. And they usually sit high enough to where we can overcome those things they run into.”
The department is charged with transporting each student from their bus stop to the school and back again. This means managing the logistics and maintenance of the school’s fleet of 40 buses. But when Dusenberry is driving around early, what she is thinking about is whether an 11th grade, greenhorn driver will have the skills necessary to safely traverse the road.
“When we look at roads, we look more at whether or not high school kids could drive them safely,” Dusenberry said. “High school kids will be driving these roads, too. Kids that young don't necessarily have the experience that the rest of us might. We have to keep them safe, too.”
Dusenberry said that in her building, the National Weather Service is always running on the television.
“If we see something coming in, we try to be proactive rather than reactive,” Dusenberry said. Her team of mechanics, supervisors, bus drivers and dispatchers get in early. The way Dusenberry has it figured, if bad weather never shows, then everyone can sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee. But should the inevitability of hazardous weather comes, it’s important to have everyone on deck.”
Though Lance Wedekind describes himself as “just a mechanic,” it doesn’t take more than a question or two to realize, few have the experience with the ins and outs of the fleet management and route planning that he does.
With the National Weather Service’s wind chill advisories in effect, he said things have been a little easier this week.
“This week, we’ve been lucky,” Kind said. “We have guidelines set up. When we have a high wind advisory, we do a two-hour late start. If it’s done blowing by 10, then we call the whole day (off). We don’t want kids standing out in conditions below zero. If a bus stalls out, we don’t want them standing there.”
Kind said that it is not uncommon for students to walk a quarter of a mile to get to the bus stop. Being exposed to the elements for that long, both Dusenberry and Wedekind want to make sure the bus is ready to meet them ASAP.
The fleet to encounters major problems in the cold weather.
Dusenberry and Wedekind remembered in 2010, the wind chill was down to 30 below.
“We were jump-starting buses just to try and get them warm,” Dusenberry said. “And the wind — it was coming in so fast that you would start on one end jump-starting engines and by the time you got two or three buses down, the ones you had just started already died again.”
“That was a horrible day,” Wedekind said. “We do window checks, battery checks. We work really hard (on the fleet) for eight months just to get ready for the four months (of winter). That’s what we’re out here trying to do. Get ahead.”
The stakes are clear to everyone in the building from bus driver to the dispatcher.
“I haul gold,” John Martz, a mechanic, said. “The way I look at it, if your kid is on the bus, and something happens to your kid ... I make sure this gold gets delivered and then gets back home. That’s the way I look at it.”
Martz said that when out and about and he sees people running school-bus stop signs, it leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
“I wish they’d learn to respect those signs,” Martz said. “They’re endangering kids. The bus will be fine, but they endangering those kids. They just got to remember that.”