Beyond nuts and bolts. Safety, with heart.
Newton’s laws of motion are clearly visible every time a school bus driver starts the ignition and steps on the accelerator. What isn’t clear is that the principles of physics alone are not enough to run student transportation services for the entire state of Iowa. That requires much more than just the laws of gravity.
Enter Joe Funk, an Iowa Department of Education school bus inspector extraordinaire, and no stranger to the automotive industry.
“People ask me, ‘What is the safest mode of transportation?,’ and I say, ‘a school bus.’ As an inspector, it’s my job to see anything that might be a potential hazard. The transportation safety of the students is number one.”
Funk is one of three inspectors responsible for inspecting vehicles that transport children. He handles the eastern third of the state at approximately 88 inspection sites. Between now and the new year, he will work with about 128 entities (school districts, day cares, churches, Regional Transit Associations [RTA]) which have vehicles that serve the transportation needs of Iowa’s children. Iowa law dictates that such vehicles be inspected twice a year.
It usually takes one inspector about 20 minutes to conduct a complete inspection of one vehicle. School districts with under 60 vehicles will have one inspector, districts with 60-90 vehicles will have two inspectors, and those with 90-or-more vehicles have all three inspectors present. If available, the Iowa State Patrol lends a hand in the larger districts that typically have greater numbers of vehicles.
“When we do inspections for the Des Moines district that has 148 vehicles, we will have three inspectors and numerous state patrol officers,” Funk said. “The officers will assist with the outside lights, interior of the vehicle including emergency alarms on the windows, interior lights, and documentation that is inside the bus.
“We will come in behind them and inspect the chassis side of the vehicle, checking brakes, steering, suspension, look at the hoses, nuts and bolts inside the wheel well, and take care of the mechanical side of it. We’ll shine a flashlight and take a real good look at the interior and walk all the way around it and look at the underside.”
View more images from the bus inspections.
And Funk knows of what he speaks. One might even say it’s in his blood given that his father and grandfather were final school bus inspectors at the International Harvester plant in Ohio in the 1970s.
“When the vehicle was completely done, my dad and grandfather would thoroughly inspect the vehicle before they would release it to go out on the lot,” Funk said. “My dad has photos of him and my grandfather sitting on crates testing the first ABS system on a school bus. They were in on the ground floor of the development of anti-lock brakes for school buses. They inspired me. My dad made a comment when I first started this position. He said, ‘When you approach the first vehicle you have to have a positive attitude.’”
With that inspiration and positive attitude, Funk has shared his skills with the automotive industry since 1983. First as an auto mechanic in high school, then in the military where he worked on tanks, trucks, and jeeps for four years. Following military service he worked for a school district for 13 years at an RTA paratransit agency. The past five years he has served as a bus inspector for school districts in Iowa.
“On a daily basis in the past five years, I have heard transportation directors, mechanics, and other people in the district who walk around with us say, ‘You are our second set of eyes, looking for something that somebody might miss,’” he said. “It’s a positive that they rely on us to do this twice a year, to come in and be their second eyes.”
Inspection day, a well-oiled machine
Funk and Verlan Vos, the inspector for central Iowa, arrive at the inspection site just as early morning sunshine drapes across neatly parked yellow school buses. The two men are smiling and upbeat, attired in work boots and blue jeans, outfitted with fully equipped utility belts, and wearing knee pads that mean business. They carry electronic tablets for recording notes and documenting the details of each inspection. Funk’s shirt is the characteristic bright, neon orange associated with transportation signage or traffic cones or someone who wishes to be very visible. These are men on a mission.
Funk and Vos reconnect with the transportation director, mechanics, bus drivers, and Iowa State Patrol officers who have gathered to confer about the procedures for the day. They all look happy to be working together, and a mood of friendly but serious anticipation sets the tone as inspection day begins.
“My job is different every day with the school districts, drivers, and people that I meet,” Funk said. “It makes my day when I can provide information that helps somebody. We talk with mechanics and give them guidance with our expertise. I’ve worked on tractor trailers, school buses, and been a technician all my life. I’m a master technician and I want to pass that information on to help them. We share what we have seen and learned, what we have heard and what we know.”
Funk recalls the time when a vehicle undergoing inspection went out on a route and when it returned the left rear axle seal had just started leaking.
“And I broke the guy’s heart, and it broke my heart,” he said, “because he was having a really good inspection, but I had to put a vehicle out of service.”
Another time he spotted a mount housing on a lower shock that had a hairline crack, a very difficult thing to detect, and the vehicle was immediately put out of service.
“If you have one minor deficiency, it is a safety issue,” Funk said.
“If we have the drivers present during a vehicle inspection, we ask them for their driver’s license, medical card, and driver’s authorization, just to triple check everything,” he said. “When I do my presentations for the school districts or RTAs, I share that I am not just the vehicle inspector, I also want to make sure their documentation is correct. I remind them of how important the school bus is and emphasize the importance of the pre-trip routine. I tell them, ‘You are the driver and you are in control.’ That’s how important they are.”
Inspection day continues at full throttle and shows no signs of easing up. The individual crews have spread out to various quadrants of the lot like tentacles on a road map, and each has developed a certain rhythm to their work. They shout commands and use hand signals to communicate with each other over the roar of diesel engines.
The inspectors move through the process with surgical precision using eyes that see what seems invisible. They make sure all exterior lights are functioning. They watch for snags or drags on the bus body, or a vehicle pulling away. They check the step well. They open up the hood and scrutinize the anatomy beneath. They bend to the ground too many times to count. They crawl over, under, and around the entire bus. No need for a gym membership to stay fit. It’s 90-plus degrees with plenty of humidity, and Funk’s bright orange shirt is drenched in sweat.
“It’s inspiring to me when I approach a driver on a vehicle and learn they have been driving for 37, 52, even 55 years,” Funk said. “Some have been school bus drivers their entire life. One woman had driven for 57 years, and she hopped up and down the stairs like a 28-year-old! She has probably worked with four generations of school buses and students.
“These are committed professionals who are great at their jobs and love what they do. They work their hearts out. I remember last year when I showed up at a school district and my car thermometer said 23 degrees below zero. The transportation director looked at me and said, ‘Let’s get to work.’”
Funk is adamant about providing safe transportation for the children of Iowa. He wants the National Congress on Student Transportation and all the state delegates to keep the standards high, right where they should be.
“I say to my districts and to my drivers, that they have precious cargo. You hope that parents have that warm and fuzzy feeling when their students are put on that safe vehicle.”