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Staying Alert Pays Off

Bus driver Randy Graham

THOMASTON – School bus drivers are called upon to perform many different tasks – keeping an eye on traffic, managing students on the bus and staying alert for the unusual. On most days, the routine doesn’t change, but on Tuesday something struck Thomaston driver Randy Graham as strange.

During his morning route, Graham noticed an elderly man sitting on the side of the road on Walnut Hill in Thomaston. The man was wearing a hoodie, despite temperatures in the teens, and looked confused. Concerned by what he saw, Graham called Thomaston police after he dropped his students off later that morning at Center School.

“I saw an old guy sitting on the side of the road. He looked dazed and confused. I knew he was in some kind of trouble,” said Graham, who worked as a police officer for 26 years before retiring. He has been driving school buses since 2011.

Graham’s instincts proved to be correct. Later Tuesday, police stopped by the All-Star Transportation terminal in Thomaston to thank Graham for his call. The confused old man suffers from dementia, and he had wandered about a half mile from his residence on Walnut Hill. Graham’s call had made it possible for the man to be returned home safely.

Graham downplayed what he did, saying, “Anybody would have done it.”

A Lifetime of Experiences

All-Star Transportation driver Jim Tomassetti

NEWTOWN – When Jim Tomassetti says that he’s seen it all as a bus driver, he’s not kidding. He began his career as a school bus driver 47 years ago, and when he starts talking about his experiences, the years flow by in an endless stream of entertaining remembrances and stories.

“My parents didn’t want me to be a driver, but I didn’t listen to them. All my friends were drivers,” says Tomassetti, who began driving a school bus at age 18 right after graduating in 1972 from Masuk High School in Monroe.

“I always knew I was going to be a bus driver,” he says, recalling a story that his mother told him. She said that when he was a young boy in Bridgeport, Tomassetti would become excited whenever he saw a city bus. “I guess I always had a thing for buses,” he adds.

When thinking back to his first days as a driver, Tomassetti becomes nostalgic. He started with the Dunn Bus Co. in Monroe, where he drove school buses for 10 years until the company went out of business. He recalls fondly driving Dodges with Ward bodies – “they had style, today they all look alike” – no power steering and no heat.

“It was all innocent,” he says of those early years. “So much has changed. The buses years ago, they made drivers out of you. I miss the shifting. You get spoiled with the automatic.”

Prior to driving a school bus in Newtown, Tomassetti drove in Easton and Trumbull, in addition to Monroe. He also drove a transit bus in Bridgeport for eight years during his off hours until he says “I couldn’t take it any longer.” One time while driving his city bus, he was assaulted by two men, one of who punched him in the face, knocking his glasses off. Bloodied, but not terribly injured, he completed his shift. Another time, a bank robber boarded his bus. The man had paid his fare, and no one knew he had just robbed a bank until police surrounded and boarded the bus to take the robber down.

“He robbed a bank and got on my bus, can you believe it?” Tomassetti says.

Driving a school bus was always the safer and better job, although it also had its challenges in the years when he first began driving. In addition to lacking heat and automatic transmissions, the buses also lacked radios. So, if a bus had a mechanical issue, the driver had to be a quick thinker and resourceful to get help and transport students safely to school.

“It was good, the responsibility,” he says, adding, “it was simpler times.”

When he first began driving in Newtown, he did so as an independent contractor. He owned and maintained his own bus, taking on the responsibility of having his bus inspected every year and fit for the road. In fact, all the buses in Newtown were operated by independent contractors until All-Star Transportation secured a town-wide contract seven years ago. After All-Star took over, Tomassetti joined its staff in Newtown.

His years of experience have taught him many lessons, especially when it comes to the care of the students he transports. He says he has more patience now when dealing with students. But he adds that when he tells his students to do something, he expects his orders to be followed and his students generally obey. Like many drivers, he also has built relationships with his parents. In fact, when he had hip replacement surgery this past summer, it was the mother of one of his students who drove to his hospital in Hartford to pick him up and take him home.

He says the worst day of his career was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. He had two students that afternoon that he had to take home to Sandy Hook. To protect them, he had them lie down on the bus seats so that onlookers and the news media could not see them.

“I could not stop crying,” he said, explaining that he had to take time off after the shooting to recover.

Then, pausing to reflect further on the tragedy, he added, “I do love my kids.”

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.