School bus inspectors and safety techies find the flaws

Cathy Bayer

He was one of 22 people competing for the titles of "America’s Best" school bus inspector and bus technician, sponsored by the National Association of Public Transportation.

Ivie works with the Utah Highway Patrol, which oversees area school bus maintenance. He competed in the state level in Utah, and won, so on Thursday he was up for the national school bus inspector title at Caterpillar’s Demonstration and Learning Center.

Inspectors are in charge of making sure busses are safe, checking every detail before they hit the road. Technicians are in charge of diagnosing problems.

Seven Peoria District 150 buses lined Cat’s demonstration arena Thursday for the hands-on part of the competition. Each bus had a few everyday problems, such as faulty brakes, broken lights, or engine problems.

Judges look for an exact diagnosis and how quickly problems are found.

"You’re not rated like an ice skater," said Joe Scesny, a judge from New York.

Some jobs would take just a few minutes to fix, while others might take a day. But competitors only have to identify and diagnose the problem.

"It’s tricky," Scesny said. "It’s to test the mind and ability."

The event also includes written examinations and lectures.

Winners will be announced today, and will get to attend the 2007 National Association of Public Transportation Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., for free.

The competition began as a reward for engine "specs and techs," since they spend so much time making sure kids travel safely.

"Everybody has a competition for the drivers," said judge Marshall Casey of South Carolina. "We wanted to do something for the technicians."

The fourth annual event was previously held at bus manufacturing plants around the nation, but this year was hosted by Caterpillar, as the company supplies school bus engines.

While the national title is a big deal, it doesn’t bring out many spectators. There’s no applause when someone finds a loose screw, Scesny said. "It’s more about learning."

Competitors always end up talking shop, discussing problems they’ve seen and sharing ideas on how to solve them.

"It’s amazing, the job that they do to keep school busses going," Casey said.

Each state can send two representatives to the national competition, one in each category.

About 15 states host a statewide competition and send their winner to nationals. Other states nominate workers, including Illinois representative Rickie Pherigo of Chandlerville, east of Beardstown.

Although it’s Pherigo’s first competition, he’s been a school bus technician for eight years and hoped that would be enough for him to fare well in the two-day event.

"You can’t prepare for this," he said. "It’s something you do every day."

Cathy Bayer can be reached at (309) 686-3196 or