The University of Victoria is making changes to how it conducts field trips to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) after a review of a fatal bus accident last September that claimed the lives of two students.
John Geerdes of Iowa City, Iowa, and Emma Machado of Winnipeg, Manitoba, both 18, passed away and many other students were injured after a bus crashed on a school trip to the science centre on Sept. 13, 2019.
After the collision, the university says it hired independent expert Ross Cloutier to review its planning and operations that were in place prior to the accident as well as its response.
The report identified a number of areas that needed improvement and could be strengthened. Recommendations cover a range of subject matter including pre-trip requirements, appropriate transportation and travel on the Bamfield Main road, emergency response protocols and student and family support.
“We know this devastating accident has caused immeasurable grief and that the impacts are ongoing for the families of the students who died, and for the other students on the bus and their families. To those who have suffered loss and hardship, the university is profoundly sorry,” says UVic president Jamie Cassels.
“We fully accept the review’s recommendations and are already working diligently to implement them to help prevent an accident like this from ever happening again, to strengthen planning for student trips off-campus and to allow us to more effectively respond to critical incidents.”
On the evening of Sept. 13, 2019, a chartered bus was carrying 45 UVic students and two teaching assistants for the course, who were acting as chaperones, on a first-year biology field trip to the research and teaching centre.
UVic says the bus was mid-way from Port Alberni to Bamfield when it moved closer to the side of the gravel logging road as a vehicle approached from the opposite direction at a point where the road narrows. The bus tipped off the side of the road, slid on its side down an incline and onto its roof.
Emergency responders attended and the students were transported to Port Alberni and Duncan for treatment. The school says most of the students arrived back at UVic the following day.
Cloutier, an expert in outdoor-related risk management with Bhudak Consultants Ltd., reviewed university policies, pre-trip information and planning processes; interviewed students, parents and university employees; and visited the accident site and the Bamfield facility.
All surviving students and their parents or guardians were provided the opportunity to speak or correspond with Cloutier, who also travelled to Manitoba and Iowa to meet with the families of the deceased students, according to UVic.
“We’re grateful to those who contributed to this report through interviews or written submissions including Emma’s and John’s families, the surviving students and their families, as well as the faculty members, instructors and staff at the university,” says Cassels. “This was a harrowing event that presented complex challenges and those interviews and conversations would have been difficult. We care deeply about our students. This was devastating for us all.”
UVic says the review notes a catastrophic event can be caused by a combination of non-related and low-consequence events.
Regarding the central issue of bus transportation itself, the review gave advice on how buses can be used more safely, given the type and condition of the remote road. The university says it fully accepts the measures and is ready and actively working to implement the recommendations.
For any future UVic bus trips to Bamfield, there will be many new measures from now on: a hazard assessment and control program; travel and arrival during daylight; pre-determined itineraries; an additional satellite communications device; first aid equipment for the group size; and appropriate staff on board who can enforce protocols such as adhering to the itinerary and the wearing of seatbelts.
The university says it will also work with the BMSC, which is co-owned by five western Canadian universities, to explore ideas that would benefit other users of the road such as a pilot car service, an information hub for travellers with road and other information, and the use of VHF radio vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
Due to COVID-19, BMSC is not booking school field trips until at least April 2021. UVic says it will not use buses for field trips to BMSC until the pertinent recommendations are in place. Another idea promoted by the review is to use the MV Frances Barkley ferry service from Port Alberni to Bamfield for some field schools, something UVic, is on board with.
The condition and suitability of the logging road as an essential corridor between Bamfield and Port Alberni continues to be a concern, and the university along with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, the BMSC, and others are advocating to the BC government for road improvements. Parents of the students have identified this as an important priority as well, says the university.
Analysis of the university’s response to the accident, which made up the review’s second section, provides guidance to the university on how to strengthen planning, operational processes and staff support to respond to critical incidents, especially those of this magnitude.
Among the recommendations are changes to incident-response decision making, development of an emergency response procedure for off-campus incidents, further coordination of student service supports on a case-management system, and operational guidelines for the level, volume and complexity of resources to respond to incidents of this scale in the immediate aftermath and for months afterward.