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A Celebration of Safety Heroes

Aumkar Patel Aumkar Patel wearing an All-Star T-shirt featuring his winning poster.

WATERBURY – All-Star Transportation pulled out all the stops to celebrate this year’s National School Bus Safety Week, hosting a variety of safety exercises, organizing community events and providing special T-shirts to all of its drivers.

The T-shirts, sponsored in part by Blue Bird Corp., featured the winning poster from this year’s National School Bus Safety Week poster contest, which is hosted annually by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT). Employees wore the T-shirts while making their daily runs to remind students, parents, teachers and school administrators of the importance of their role in school bus safety. The winning posted was designed by Aumkar Patel, a student at East Lake Elementary in McDonough, GA.

Safety T-Shirt“We really liked this year’s poster and the message that it delivered,” said Leslie Sheldon, All-Star’s operations manager. “Our employees truly are our safety heroes, and we wanted to celebrate them, while also taking the opportunity to collaborate with our schools to focus on important safety issues.”

In advance of National School Bus Safety Week, All-Star reached out to all the school districts that it serves to alert administrators to the upcoming week. The company encouraged administrators to commemorate the week and offered to collaborate on special events that the schools organized. All-Star also sent notices by email and social media to its employees to remind them of the special week.

The weeklong celebration featured safety events, such as bus evacuation drills and reviewsWaterbury safety heroes of school bus rules with students that were conducted on buses during school hours. At the company’s terminal in Newtown, meetings were held with elementary school principals and teachers to discuss “bridging the gap” between classroom and school bus behavior.

“Newtown has been trying to reinforce student management strategies with the drivers and wanted to get the school administrations more involved, so meetings were done with each elementary school,” said Newtown Manager Alan Colangelo. “School principals or lead teachers were invited to speak. After reviewing a student management training video and discussing different techniques, the drivers were able to share some of their frustrations, concerns and suggestions with the principals. School administrators were happy to get involved and collaborate with the drivers and office staff to make bus rides safer and more enjoyable for all.”

Washington, CT, safety heroesIn celebration of drivers and monitors, a variety of events also were held at each of the terminals, including breakfasts, coffee and donuts, pizza lunches, free balloons and flowers. At the Washington terminal, local firefighters and police officers were invited to join the celebration of drivers because of their special role as “local heroes.” The company also posted photos and stories daily on its Facebook page to build excitement and keep employees engaged.

“It was a great week,” Sheldon said. “And we feel that the extra effort everyone made to celebrate the week was really worth it.”

Continuing To Improve

All-Star's Seymour terminal

SEYMOUR – The program to renovate and upgrade All-Star Transportation facilities continued to make progress over the summer and early fall with the terminal in Seymour receiving a major facelift.

Seymour terminal lofficeOn the exterior, the Seymour terminal metal panels were replaced and the entire building got a new coat of paint. A new sign also was installed. On the interior, a new floor was installed in the shop break room, while the offices for the manager and support staff received new flooring and other enhancements. In the main lobby, restrooms were renovated and the space was enlarged to increase the comfort for staff and visitors. Also this summer, a new propane tanked was installed to serve the terminal’s fleet of propane buses.

“We’re making great progress with renovations and construction program,” said John Dufour, All-Star Transportation president. “The new facilities provide a welcome space for our employees and provide a visual representation of the quality of our company. We Seymour terminal lobbyanticipate making additional improvements to our other terminals in the months and years ahead.”

Last year, the New Milford terminal was renovated, while a new terminal was constructed in Monroe. In previous years, the terminals in Burlington and Washington were renovated to provide new modern work spaces. The new Burlington terminal opened in January 2015, while the renovated Washington terminal opened in the fall of that same year.

Getting Everyone Off The Bus Safely

Checking lists on a school bus

WATERBURY – Loading and unloading special-needs student on a school bus can be a challenging daily task, and it can be especially critical for students, monitors and drivers during an emergency. That’s why All-Star Transportation drivers and their monitors prepare evacuation plans for their buses.

In Waterbury, where All-Star provides buses for special needs students, drivers and monitors spent the opening weeks of the 2018-19 school year reviewing and updating their evacuation plans.

“I thought it would be a good time to remind everyone that all special needs vehicle should have a written plan that both the driver and monitor work on together,” says Brenda Bass, All-Star’s director of training. “This will save precious time and confusion as to who does what in the case of a real emergency when minutes may count.”

Checing bus evacuation plans
Waterbury Manager Ed Costa looks over new bus evacuation plans.

The main feature of an evacuation plan is a floor plan that notes the location of the first aid kit, the fire extinguisher, the fire blanket, the radio and the seat belt cutter. An evacuation plan also includes a list of where each student sits and a brief description of each student’s disability. The plan further notes whether a student is mobile or needs assistance when evacuating.

Also critical to an evacuation plan is a knowledge of wheelchairs and the systems used to secure them in the buses. In some events, drivers and monitors may not have the time to operate lifts and unload wheelchairs as normal. So, in preparing their evacuation plans, drivers and monitors the Waterbury staff reviewed how to release each seat belt within the chair and other body support apparatus; how to remove each child’s work tray; how to release the foot straps; and how to release the harness on travel chairs.

“This has been a very worthwhile exercise because it has sparked conversation between the drivers and monitors, and other staff,” Bass said. “I am very impressed with the attention to detail and plans that are being submitted for our review.

“One of the very important lessons that I learned while attending any special needs training is that we should never put a child on the bus unless we know how to get them off,” Bass said.

Once approved, copies of the evacuation plans kept in the bus, along with route sheets, for spare drivers.

Celebrating National School Bus Safety Week

National School Bus Safety Week poster

WATERBURY – All-Star Transportation will once again celebrate National School Bus Safety Week, which this year will run from Oct. 22-26.

The safety week is an educational program of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT). It is held the third week of October and is recognized as an excellent way for parents, students, teachers, motorists, school bus operators, school administrators, and other interested parties – to join forces and address the importance of school bus safety.

In the communities served by All-Star Transportation a number of special events will be held, including school bus safety training for students and a breakfast for police and other safety officials. All-Star drivers and monitors also will wear T-shirts featuring this year’s School Bus Safety Week poster. The T-shirts are sponsored by School Lines Inc., a distributor of Blue Bird school buses.

The theme for this year’s safety week is “My Driver – My Safety Hero!” The theme is derived from an annual NAPT poster contest. The 2017 winning poster (see photo) was drawn by Aumkar Patel, a 5th Grader at Henry County Schools in McDonough, GA.

New Propane Tank Installed

New propane tank

SEYMOUR – All-Star Transportation completed a key project today as it continues with its efforts to convert its fleet of diesel vehicles to cleaner, more-efficient propane.

Propane tankA new, 18,000-gallon propane tank was installed at the company’s Seymour terminal. Once fully operational, the new tank will provide fuel for the 21 school buses that serve Seymour public schools and three others that transport Region 16 students in Beacon Falls.

The effort to install the new tank has been ongoing for months. A concrete platform and piping were installed much earlier while the tank was under construction. Once it was completed, the tank was transported from North Carolina.

The new tank was just the latest in improvements made at the Seymour terminal. Over theNew propane tank summer, the terminal received a new coat of paint, a new floor was installed in the shop break room, and the front office was fully renovated to create new office space and space for staff to gather. Work at the Seymour terminal is part of All-Star’s long-term plans to modernize and upgrade its terminals.

In addition to Seymour, All-Star operates propane-fueled buses at its terminals in New Milford and Newtown.

Mastering His Trade

Steve Rosko

TORRINGTON – Stephen Rosko has been tinkering with cars and trucks for as long as he can remember. And so it is no surprise that he recently became certified as a master school bus technician at All-Star Transportation’s service center in Torrington.

In fact, at age 23, he is one of the youngest master technicians at All-Star.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and doing this sort of stuff,” says Rosko, who joined All-Star as a full-time employ a little over three years ago. Prior to that he was a college student pursing a degree in criminal justice with an eye toward becoming a police officer.

“I didn’t like how the criminal justice (system) was going and what it takes to be a cop these days,” he says.

Steve RoskoSo, he focused on what he knew and liked. He took a job at the Torrington location, where he had worked as a student at Wamogo High School in Litchfield.

“When I was still in high school, I spent summers here working with my father,” he says. His father is Steve Rosko, the director of maintenance for All-Star Transportation, who also began his career with the company as an entry-level mechanic out of Wamogo High School.

“I started as a helper and worked my way up,” the younger Rosko explains, adding that he likes working for his father, even though he might face a little more scrutiny than others.

“He’s extremely smart,” he says of his father. “He’s helped me out with a lot of everything in this career.”

To achieve master technician status, the younger Rosko had to successfully complete a series of six exams offered by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence that tested his knowledge of mechanical systems specific to school buses. He studied and passed all the tests in a year, completing the final one in June.

At the Torrington location, Rosko works on both propane- and diesel-fueled vehicles. As for the future, he says his next step is to complete certifications offered by individual manufacturers for their specific vehicles.

All-Star Wins $50,000 National Grant

Zonar V4 Device

WATERBURY – All-Star Transportation has won a prestigious $50,000 grant to purchase cutting-edge technology designed to enhance the safety and security of the school buses it operates in Litchfield, New Haven and upper-Fairfield counties.

The 2018 Don Carnahan Memorial Technology Grant is sponsored by The National Association for Pupil Transportation and Zonar Systems Inc., a Seattle-based company that provides smart fleet management solutions. The Zonar technology will make it possible to track buses to monitor fuel usage, speed, idling time and other operational issues. The technology also can provide alerts when buses aren’t operated safely or when they need maintenance.

“Zonar and NAPT have worked together to help student transportation operators improve safety, and drive effective and efficient operations in transporting students to and from school in their communities,” said H. Kevin Mest, Zonar’s senior vice president of passenger services. “This grant helps assist with the financial resources needed to invest in technology. We applaud All-Star Transportation for being a leader in the industry and adopting best-practices solutions.”

A total of 250 Zonar systems will be installed on All-Star buses based at the company’s terminals in New Milford, Newtown, Prospect and Torrington.

“We are focused on ensuring the safety of our students and providing our customers with great value,” said Leslie Sheldon, All-Star Transportation’s operations manager. “We successfully tested Zonar technology on our Waterbury fleet during the 2017-18 school years, and we believe it is the right product to enhance our fleet and improve our services.

“Looking to the future, our plan is to phase in the use of Zonar technology companywide over the next few years,” Sheldon added.

Based in Waterbury, All-Star Transportation employs more than 1,000 and operates 18 school bus terminals servicing the in-district and out-of-district transportation needs of 35 cities and towns. All-Star Transportation safely transports more 47,000 students every day during the school year.

The grant is named in honor of Don Carnahan in recognition of his lifelong contributions to the student transportation industry. Carnahan dedicated 45 years to the education and pupil transportation industry. He joined Zonar in 2003 and served 11 years as a company leader. He also was a two-term NAPT president.

Blazing A New Path

Sarah Fontoura

NEW MILFORD – Even though women hold many key positions at All-Star Transportation, the staff at the company’s three maintenance shops had for years remained all male. But that changed this spring when Sarah Fontoura was hired as a service technician in New Milford.

“I love cars,” the 23-year-old Fontoura says. “I was raised on cars. My dad has been a mechanic all his life for the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in the Bronx. Every weekend we went to car shows, and we still do that today.”

But Fontoura brings more to the job than just a passion for cars. After graduating from New Milford High School in 2013, she completed a two-year automotive technician program at Naugatuck Valley Community College, earning an associate’s degree. She also became a skilled welder while at NVCC.

After completing her schooling, Fontoura worked for two years at a large auto repair shop, where she mainly did tire repairs and oil changes. Wanting to do more, she applied to become a service technician at All-Star after seeing a help-wanted advertisement on Indeed, the Internet-based employment company.

“This is a good job,” she says. “I realize that these type of jobs are hard to come by for women. Not many (shops) like women mechanics. Many are disrespectful. I was once turned down for an interview because I’m a woman.”

But her work experience since joining All-Star in March has been refreshingly different.

Sarah Fontoura“The guys here a great,” she says, naming all her co-workers who have helped and provided guidance. “I’m starting at the bottom, but if I find a bus that needs brakes or belts, I get to do it.

“I can’t learn by textbook,” she adds. “I learn by being in the shop and doing it.”

In her spare time, Fontoura, as might be expected, tinkers with her two vehicles – a 1999 Firebird and a 2015 Jeep. She does all her own maintenance and repairs, while dreaming of the day when she has home with its own shop.

She also anticipates working toward certification as a master school bus technician after she becomes more settled in her job and learns more about buses. But she’s already acquired the materials need to pass the first test toward becoming certified.

“We are thrilled to have Sarah be a member of our maintenance team. Her energy and positive attitude are assets,” says Leslie Sheldon, All-Star Transportation’s operation manager.

A Storm To Remember

Tree damaged by May 2018 tornado

MONROE – When the school day began on Tuesday, May 15, it seemed like any other. The sun was shining, the humidity was building and weather forecasters were predicting afternoon showers with the possibility of severe thunderstorms.

A few hours later, the forecasts became more threatening. Schools responded by canceling softball games, field trips and other extracurricular events. At All-Star Transportation locations impacted by the oncoming storms, steps also were being taken in preparation for the weather.

“By noon that Tuesday, we were in constant contact with the superintendent’s office, making sure all after school activities were cancelled, that all students could be delivered home and that we could get drivers out and on their way home before the storm hit,” said Alan Colangelo, manager of All-Star’s Newtown location.

Cancelling events and getting buses off the road turned out to be a wise decision as tornadoes rolled through several communities, cutting electrical service and closing roads for days. Fortunately, only a few buses were still on the road when the storms hit.

“There were two buses (one coming from New Haven and the other from Trumbull) that were forced to fight an uphill battle trying to find open roads to deliver the students safely to the high school,” Colangelo said. “What normally would have been a 5:20 p.m. drop-off ended up being a 7:10 p.m. drop-off.  Many thanks to these two drivers who kept their calm and were able to fight their way through the carnage.”

In Seymour, the terminal office lost radio contact with its drivers on the Seymour channel and cell phone service was spotty at best.

Downed tree and wires“We had two buses out. One bus with kids, and one bus without kids,” said Steve Gardner, the manager in Seymour. “The bus without kids got stuck on Skokorat Street in Seymour. The storm hit and a live wire ended up on the roof of her (the driver’s) bus. She was stuck for a little over four hours before she could move. Another driver sat with her to make sure she was OK. The other bus with kids got stuck on Great Hill Road temporarily but made it to the remaining schools in Oxford and Beacon Falls. We had no damaged buses.”

Hardest hit among All-Star’s service areas were Brookfield, Beacon Falls, Newtown, Oxford and Seymour. Schools in Oxford and Brookfield were closed for five days, with Brookfield restarting its runs only after some routes were temporarily modified. Newtown schools also were closed for four days, while Seymour schools closed for three and Derby one. None of All-Star’s terminals sustained any damage.

As for drivers, monitors, mechanics and their families, most reported riding out the storm safely with little or no damage to their homes.

“A few who live out of town ended up having to find a safe spot to pull over and wait it out as the storm hit just before 5 p.m. while they were trying to head home.  A number of drivers who live in town reported they had just pulled into their streets or driveways as trees and limbs started crashing down around them.  Only two reported minor damage to their homes,” Colangelo said.

Gardner said he was driving when a tornado touched down on the Southbury/Oxford line.

“It was the scariest two minutes watching debris fly over my car, watching trees sway horizontally and eventually not being able to see out of the car at all. I kept looking up at the trees praying that they wouldn’t fall on my car. I eventually lowered my head down as low as I could in case one did land on my roof.  When I was able to see, the car in front of me had a tree on its roof. The driver was OK but the car’s roof was flattened. It took me 2½ hours to make it home that night. I had to detour through Middlebury to get on the highway and eventually through Southbury and Newtown. The damage was unreal.”

After the experience, Gardner said he haS a new respect for weather reports.

“I think there should have been more closings for after school activities.  I think a lot of people, including myself, took this too lightly. “

Tapping Her Artistic Talent

Acrylic eye wrap An acrylic eye wrap.

WASHINGTON – When Krissy LaPlante is asked to explain where her artistic talent comes from, she struggles to find the words. But, fortunately, her work speaks for itself.

“I’ve always done artsy stuff. I took all the art classes in school,” says LaPlante. “I’ve been dreaming for awhile about being an artist, and I just started one day.”

Two years ago, LaPlante launched her career as an artist. It was just about the same time she joined All-Star Transportation as a school bus driver at the Washington terminal. She paints, creates jewelry and makes a variety of other art objects, including items for American Girl dolls.

The American Girl pieces include a variety of drink cups, such as a Starbucks Frappuccino, that she first saw online and then made her own versions. For the Frappuccino she mixes silicone and then pours it into small communion cups that look like the clear cups available at Starbucks. To create tops for the cups, she purchased small Christmas ornaments that she cut in half. She also makes and paints wood cake pops for American Girl dolls. LaPlante’s five-year-old daughter, who has a doll collection, is one of her biggest fans.

Krissy LaPlante
Krissy LaPlante

The Internet is perhaps the biggest source of inspiration for LaPlante. If she sees something she likes online, she’s not afraid to experiment and add her own artistic twist. For instance, she makes Lego men out of resin and uses acrylic paint to create colorful popsockets..

She also uses acrylics for her paintings, which she calls fluid art. To create a fluid art piece, she pours paint onto a clean surface and then moves the paint about to create unique designs.

“Last year, I saw a video online about acrylic painting, and I said, ‘I need to try painting,’” she says.

She typically does her painting and her other projects in her kitchen, although she notes that she will soon move to a new home where she will have a art studio that she will share with her daughter as a playroom. When mixing and pouring the paints in her kitchen, she collects the droppings in a tub. Those droppings, after they dried, inspired another project.

When looking at the dried paint, she realized “that’s a lot of wasted paint. Then I saw people making jewelry from it, and I said, ‘I can do that.’” And so she did, creating bracelets and necklaces from the acrylic, string and wire.

Acrylic Paintings
Fluid Art Paintings

LaPlante would love to become a full-time artist, but notes that “it’s really hard to make a living.” So, she has a Facebook page, an Etsy page and an Instagram page where she posts her items for sale. She’s also put some of her stuff in local store, selling her items in a price range from $5 to $10 an item. She also will display her work at a crafts fair in Morris on June 2 and at the Connecticut Garlic & Harvest Festival in Bethlehem on Oct. 6-7 (the festival is run by her co-worker and fellow bus driver David Harkness).

Looking to the immediate future, LaPlante is planning to expand her artistry by taking a course in sculpture at the Washington Art Association.

“I want to see what I can do with that,” she says.