Many of the 200 special-needs people in Pasco County probably have notbeen on a school bus in years, but if a nursing home or hospital catches fire or a hurricane strikes the area, that is how they will be transported to shelter.
Pasco has spent about $22,750 in federal grant money to buy 10 ramps and 60 patient transporters to convert school buses into ambulances in case of an emergency, said Edie Sanders, coordinator of disaster preparedness for the county. The buses, owned by the Pasco County school system, could transport six handicapped or medically infirm people at a time and enable ambulances to respond to other duties during an emergency.
"You can't even estimate the amount of help these school buses have," said District Chief Chris Alland of Pasco's Emergency Medical Services.
The county began considering the idea after Hurricane Elena in 1985. During that storm, 250 people were enrolled in the county's special-needs evacuation program, and getting them to shelters while responding to emergency calls was difficult, Alland said.
"We were swamped. We were definitely hurting as far as getting these people transported," he said. Now Pasco has 1,600 people in the program. About 1,400 of those are mobile or healthy enough to be seated in school buses for evacuation, but about 200 of them need ambulance transportation - or the next best thing.
The patient transporters are wood platforms topped with laminated plastic and laid over the tops of school bus seats. Safety belts hold the patient on the transporter, and grips on the sides keep the transporter from sliding, Alland said. An aluminum ramp extends from the rear door of the bus to allow emergency workers to carry people onto the bus on stretchers.
"This should really improve things," Alland said last week before a demonstration of the new equipment.
People in the Special Needs and Assistance Program (SNAPS) would need extra help in an emergency, Sanders said. During Hurricane Elena, ambulances had to be used to pick up those people and take them to evacuation shelters. Because the ambulances could transport only two people at a time, the county was scrambling to get people to shelter, Alland said.
The buses will nearly double the county's capacity to move special-needs people. Ambulances still will pick people up at their homes, but instead of taking them to the shelter, they will take them to school bus compounds in Port Richey, Hudson, Land O'Lakes, Dade City and Zephyrhills. From there, they will be taken to the shelter site in school buses driven by county school bus drivers.
"Our ambulances would be able to make the short drives into the streets that buses can't get into," Alland said.
The county uses Pasco-Hernando Community College as its evacuation site for special-needs people, but it is looking for a new site, he said.