As they were preparing to roll out early this morning Flagler County schools’ bus drivers got a surprise inspection from members of the Transportation Security Administration, the at-times dreaded federal agency and division of the Department of Homeland Security.
But it’s not what you think.
The agents were there at the invitation of Dontarrious Rowls, the district’s transportation director, who was essentially putting his staff through a safety-training drill that’s part of the TSA’s “Security Enhancement Through Assessment” program. Rowls had used the program in a previous job, and spent the last couple of months preparing to implement it in Flagler. So when bus drivers at first found unattended bags in their buses, they may have been a bit spooked. But that was the point: to see how they’d react, what they’d right and what they’d do wrong, and what it means about the Transportation Department’s safety protocols.
“We’ve never done this before, but some of the feedback I got from the drivers was good,” Rowls said, even as a few got a bit nervous during the exercise. A supervisor was in place to reassure them.
The SETA program is a “no-cost, collaborative, voluntary program that is designed to evaluate and improve a surface transportation stakeholder’s vehicle inspection procedures,” a program fact sheet states. “A tactical level assessment, SETA consists of covertly placing unattended bags on multiple vehicles simultaneously to simulate a coordinated terrorist attack.”
At least that’s how it’s phrased for all sorts of agencies that take advantage of the training, from airline companies to rail and other surface transportation agencies.
TSA’s program involves several steps, starting with what took place today, when bus drivers and the department’s protocols were under observation and those bags were left on buses to see whether and how drivers carried out their required pre- and post-route security checks. Of course they were not told ahead of time. “If I coach you out of the gate the gate I don’t get real feedback,” Rowls said. “We wanted to get a real baseline on where our drivers were.”
That part of the assessment is now completed. Phase 2 entails TSA inspectors providing briefings and security training on how the department can improve, what it’s doing well (and should keep doing), and other protocols it could consider. That will take place later this summer. Phase three is a re-assessment: another chance for the inspectors to see whether the department is implementing recommendations and ensuring that employees are abiding by them.
It’s all free and voluntary.
Rowls says he wants to do “everything we can to ensure we transport our passengers as safely as possible. It’s about being prepared. We can never teach preparedness enough, so all in all my direction for the department, my passion, is I have an obligation to the community and the stakeholders that trust us to transport their children as safely as possible.”
The Flagler County Transportation Department provides transportation to some 5,600 students every day, running 62 buses that cover 131 bus runs.
The inspectors also provide active-shooter training, hostage-situation training and other, less cataclysmic methods that more commonly apply to bus drivers, such as–for example–knowing how to detect a vehicle at a bus stop that isn’t usually there or may seem out of place, and reacting appropriately. The approach is part of a broader reorganization and modernization of the department that’s also taking advantage of new technology on buses–10 new ones are to be delivered this summer–emphasizing training and providing employees down to service techs what they need to do the job.
The department went through stressful months at the beginning of the year, struggling through driver shortages, but it’s turned around since, resulting in what Rowls describes as “Not a comfortable place but a good place” for now.
“Safety is my number one priority, because we can’t be prepared enough when it comes to transporting our future and transporting our precious cargo,” Rowls said.