Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off. Model Practice

State: CO Type: Model Practice Year: 2012

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Idling a vehicle for one minute produces more carbon monoxide than three packs of smoked cigarettes. Children’s lungs are still developing and elevated exposure to air pollution can permanently damage their respiratory systems because they breathe 50% more air per body weight, spend more time outdoors, and are more active than adults. Yet, parents wait in running vehicles for up to 30 minutes to pick up their children at school every day.
Air quality data collected on the rooftops of two Denver Public Schools in June 2005-May 2006 showed concentrations of air toxics to be higher than established health benchmarks. The hourly data showed that there were noticeable spikes in pollution at 3-4 PM, which corresponds to school dismissal times; therefore these elevated concentrations of hazardous air pollutants are likely caused by the vehicles associated with student commuting.  Decreasing the frequency and duration of idling were targeted as ways to improve air quality at schools because idling is a voluntary, unnecessary behavior.

Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH), the local health department, developed the Clean Air at Schools:

  • Engines Off (CASEO) program to address this issue along with a diverse partnership of stakeholders from federal and local governments,schools and non-profit organizations in Colorado,including the American Lung Association of Colorado (ALA),
  • US Environmental Protection Agency,
  • Regional Air Quality Council, and
  • Mothers for Clean Air Colorado.

The aim of CASEO is to reduce air toxics exposures at schools by working with parents and school administrators to raise awareness of the risks from vehicle emissions and to reduce idling vehicles at pick up time. In addition, CASEO works with school districts to upgrade and retrofit their diesel school buses with improved emissions control technologies. Ultimately, CASEO is intended to be a replicable, customizable model program that other school districts can implement. Staff salaries and additional program expenses are paid by grants from the Colorado Department of Transportation, a private funder, and ALA’s Clean Cities Denver Metro Coalition program.

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Denver Department of Environmental Health
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Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off. Model Practice
Idling a vehicle for one minute produces more carbon monoxide than three packs of smoked cigarettes. Children’s lungs are still developing and elevated exposure to air pollution can permanently damage their respiratory systems because they breathe 50% more air per body weight, spend more time outdoors, and are more active than adults. Yet, parents wait in running vehicles for up to 30 minutes to pick up their children at school every day. Air quality data collected on the rooftops of two Denver Public Schools in June 2005-May 2006 showed concentrations of air toxics to be higher than established health benchmarks. The hourly data showed that there were noticeable spikes in pollution at 3-4 PM, which corresponds to school dismissal times; therefore these elevated concentrations of hazardous air pollutants are likely caused by the vehicles associated with student commuting.  Decreasing the frequency and duration of idling were targeted as ways to improve air quality at schools because idling is a voluntary, unnecessary behavior. Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH), the local health department, developed the Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) program to address this issue along with a diverse partnership of stakeholders from federal and local governments,schools and non-profit organizations in Colorado,including the American Lung Association of Colorado (ALA), US Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Air Quality Council, and Mothers for Clean Air Colorado The aim of CASEO is to reduce air toxics exposures at schools by working with parents and school administrators to raise awareness of the risks from vehicle emissions and to reduce idling vehicles at pick up time. In addition, CASEO works with school districts to upgrade and retrofit their diesel school buses with improved emissions control technologies. Ultimately, CASEO is intended to be a replicable, customizable model program that other school districts can implement. Staff salaries and additional program expenses are paid by grants from the Colorado Department of Transportation, a private funder, and ALA’s Clean Cities Denver Metro Coalition program. In August 2008, four days of observations were conducted at each of three Denver area elementary schools to accurately assess the amount of idling taking place. After these observations demonstrated that there was significant idling at these schools, CASEO convened focus groups of parents to measure their understanding of the issue and test the program’s messages. The feedback from these focus groups helped to shape the program’s social marketing campaign. Community-based social marketing (CBSM) has been demonstrated as an effective approach to achieving behavior change for public health projects, such as protection against sexually transmitted diseases, but is not as commonly utilized for environmental health campaigns. Further, the rigorous monitoring and evaluation element of this approach provides a feedback loop of quantifiable data on program effectiveness, which can used to improve the project. CASEO provides materials to engage students, teachers, and drivers, including letters from the principal, an idle reduction pledge, newsletter articles, “No Idle Zone” signs, and prompts that remind drivers to turn off their engines while waiting in the carpool lane. DEH also engages in traditional outreach activities, like informational tables at events and online information.In order to evaluate CASEO’s effectiveness at reducing idling at pick up time, initial observations are compared with data collected during two additional four-day observations periods. In the pilot year, the duration of vehicles idling decreased by 22-44% at the three participating schools. The variation in results reflects the degree to which parents and a local champion were involved in the campaign. CASEO has grown to include more, new schools each year. Last year, CASEO achieved reductions of 40-73% in duration of vehicles idling and nearly 1,015 pounds of emissions avoided across four schools. Seven schools have committed to participate in the current school year. DEH serves over 600,000 residents of Denver and provides assistance to Denver’s business community. CASEO has worked/is working to improve air quality at seven of the 162 Denver Public Schools, reaching the families of the nearly 79,500 students currently enrolled. However, it is difficult to quantify CASEO’s specific target population or the percent reached because the program is implemented beyond the boundaries of the school district, city, and county. CASEO partners manage data collection and communication for the program at schools in other communities. Additionally, approximately 3,200 completed surveys on idling behaviors and myths have been collected through informational tables at community outreach events. Finally, it is hoped that drivers change their unnecessary idling behaviors in every driving situation, not just at student pick up times.   
Health Issues According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment’s 2004 Colorado Child Health Survey, “asthma is the most common chronic condition in children, affecting over 6.2 million children under the age of 18 nationally and over 89,000 children between the ages of one and 14 in Colorado.”(SOURCE: Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Colorado Asthma Program Quarterly Data Brief: Asthma Among Colorado Children, Spring 2006. http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/ps/asthma/documents/Spring06_QDB.pdf Accessed October 25, 2011.) Air pollution can irritate sensitive lungs and elevated exposure to air pollution can permanently damage children’s developing respiratory systems because they breathe 50% more air per pound of body weight, spend more time outdoors, and are more active than adults. Idling a vehicle for just one minute produces more carbon monoxide than three packs of smoked cigarettes. In the Denver metro area, idling is responsible for an estimated 40,000 tons of harmful air pollution a year and 400,000 tons of CO2 emissions. Yet, adults wait in running vehicles for as long as 30 minutes to pick up their children at school every day. Decreasing the frequency and duration of idling was targeted as a way to improve air quality at schools because idling at student pick up time is a voluntary, unnecessary behavior. Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH) developed the Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) program to raise awareness of the risks from vehicle emissions and to reduce idling vehicles at pick up time. Schools are selected to participate based on two additional criteria that compound the overall impact of poor air quality: proximity to major transportation corridors or industrial area and socioeconomic status of the families, used as a proxy to indicate whether the community is underserved and might benefit from any public health interventions. Air quality data collected on the rooftops of two Denver Public Schools in June 2005-May 2006 showed concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other air toxics to be at levels exceeding established health benchmarks. The hourly data showed that there were noticeable spikes in pollution at 3-4 PM, which corresponds to school dismissal times; therefore these elevated concentrations of hazardous air pollutants are likely caused by the vehicles associated with student commuting. In August 2008, four days of observations were conducted at each of three Denver metro area elementary schools to accurately assess the amount of idling taking place. It was found that an average of one third of the vehicles idled while waiting for children, sometimes with younger children in the car with them. After the initial observations demonstrated that there was significant idling at these schools, Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) convened focus groups of parents to determine: the extent to which parents understood the harmful effects of idling, the level of awareness of idling behaviors at the school site, what types of messaging would effect change in idling behaviors, and which authority on air quality was best suited to deliver appropriate messaging. The feedback from these focus groups helped to shape the program’s social marketing campaign to create behavior change among drivers. Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) works with parents and school administrators to raise awareness of the risks from vehicle emissions and to reduce idling vehicles at pick up time. Idling observation data is collected three times during the school year. It is then analyzed and reported back to program partners to track the change in number and duration of idling vehicles as well as pounds of emissions avoided due to the behavior changes from the campaign. In addition, CASEO helps to connect school districts with financial and technical assistance to upgrade and retrofit their diesel school buses with improved emissions control technologies. Ultimately, CASEO is intended to be a replicable, customizable model program for other Colorado school districts to be able to implement idle reduction programs. CASEO provides materials to engage students, teachers, and drivers, including letters from the principal, an idle reduction pledge, newsletter articles, “No Idle Zone” signs, and prompts that remind drivers to turn off their engines while waiting in the carpool lane. DEH also engages in traditional outreach activities, like informational tables at events and online information. Innovation After analysis of the air quality data from 2005-6 indicated elevated concentrations of hazardous air pollutants corresponding the school dismissal times, Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH) decided to develop a program to reduce this source of air pollution around a vulnerable population, children. While some communities in the US and Canada have programs addressing idling vehicles, DEH wanted an active program that did more than provide information online. Instead, a community-based social marketing (CBSM) approach was developed that includes outreach and public education to motivate drivers to change their behaviors. CBMS has been demonstrated to be effective in achieving behavior change for public health issues, such as protection against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but it is not commonly utilized for environmental health projects. In fact, there are few campaigns that actively engage drivers, rather than simply provide information. Online research and conversations with air pollution prevention partners did not uncover any other idle reduction programs that used this approach. NACCHO has no idle reduction programs in its Model Practices Database. The American Lung Association of Colorado is part of a national organization that works directly on programs related to childhood asthma and air pollution, but they also do not have any programs similar to this in any of their regional offices. How does the practice differ from other approaches: Community-based social marketing (CBSM) has been demonstrated to be effective in achieving behavior change for public health issues, such as protection against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but it is not commonly utilized for environmental health projects. In addition, existing idle reduction programs focus on other types of drivers. For example, in 2008 Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH) held workshops for taxi, limo, and coach bus drivers to reduce unnecessary idling. Colorado recently passed a statewide law limiting idling of commercial diesel vehicles. The US EPA’s Smartway Transport Partnership concentrates on reducing the environmental impacts of the freight delivery system. However, Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) is unique because it employs the CBSM approach to work directly with schools and parents to reduce idling vehicles at school dismissal time, utilizing the diversity of the collaborating stakeholders to change the behavior of drivers by delivering targeted messages from different partners. School administrators, teachers, and local program champions are valuable partners in engaging and educating parents on the dangers of idling. It is hoped that these drivers continue this behavior shift on other trips, as well. DEH supports the idle reduction campaign’s efforts through staff time to conduct observations, compute data analysis, and generate outreach materials to the schools and drivers. Finally, focus groups with parents indicated that they trust public health data to come from a nationally-recognized health organization.
Primary Stakeholders Denver Department of Environmental Health, American Lung Association of Colorado, Regional Air Quality Council, Mothers for Clean Air Colorado, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and local school districts are partners in the CASEO program. The following school districts have had at least one participating school over the course of the CASEO program: Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Boulder Valley School District, and Garfield County School Districts RE-1, RE-2, and RE-3. Role of Stakeholders/Partners The American Lung Association of Colorado (ALA) is the primary partner in this program and very involved in planning and implementation. They coordinate the volunteers to collect idling observations at the two Denver metro area schools outside of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) district. They also have participated in meetings with principals at potential DPS schools to demonstrate the strength of this collaboration. They have developed some of the program materials, from pledge cards and key chains to media releases about the program’s results at various schools. In addition, they submit the funding requests and reports to and manage the relationship with encana natural gas, whose support pays for the student interns and marketing materials. Finally, the ALA provides recommendations for improving program implementation. There are two types of partners from DPS. First, the sustainability team has helped to identify potential schools for the program, coordinated meetings with school administration, and participated in these meetings to demonstrate the strength of this collaboration. Second, the administration and teachers at the schools help to distribute information to parents and guardians through multiple means, including announcements at school events (such as conferences and concerts), letters from the principal in folders and newsletters, and hanging of “No Idle Zone” signs outside of the school. The Regional Air Quality Council provides technical and financial assistance to school districts to upgrade and retrofit their diesel school buses with improved emissions control technologies. LHD Role The Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off (CASEO) Program Coordinator is an employee of the City and County of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health (DEH), which is the local health department (LHD). This position is responsible for program management, including the recruitment of participating schools and volunteers, management and training of student interns, scheduling of observation data collection, data analysis, creation and distribution of sample outreach materials for schools and community leaders, and representing the program at community events and meetings. In addition to the CASEO program, the City and County of Denver has a broader public education campaign to inform all drivers in Denver about the City’s idling vehicle ordinance, which limits idling vehicles to five minutes within a one-hour period. CASEO’s message at schools is one element of community outreach activities. DEH is also currently converting the information on the EnginesOff.com website from specifically about Denver’s idle reduction efforts to a statewide resource for all types of drivers. The section on schools will include information about the school bus retrofit program and technologies as well as the CASEO idle reduction campaign and results. An online tool kit will be available with materials for communities to replicate the CASEO campaign at their schools. Denver Environmental Health (DEH) recognizes that collaboration with our community stakeholders is essential to the success of the CASEO program. The engagement of school administrators and local champions demonstrates to the community that the school has prioritized the idle reduction campaign. This strong partnership embeds the program in the school, rather than it appearing like the government is telling drivers how to behave. Letters are sent by the school principal and informational tables at school events are staffed by local champions, rather than by DEH, to illustrate this commitment to and ownership of the program. It also ensures that the idle reduction campaign will continue after the initial year, when support CASEO staff is no longer available to the school. Additionally, the local champions help CASEO to connect with the community by identifying the appropriate venues and messages to use with parents and guardians. This connection is especially important to overcome cultural and language barriers. When the program was initially developed, focus groups were held with parents to determine: the extent to which parents understood the harmful effects of idling, the level of awareness of idling behaviors at the school site, what types of messaging would effect change in idling behaviors, and which authority on air quality was best suited to deliver appropriate messaging. The feedback from these focus groups helped to shape the program’s social marketing campaign to create behavior change among drivers. Lessons Learned One of the biggest challenges to implementing a program at a public school is that administrators and teachers are already extremely busy. While they are in favor of making their school environment healthier, they cannot commit to managing the CASEO program at their school because they have so many other responsibilities. Therefore, it is essential to find a local champion who can initiate activities at the school, such as making a presentation at a Parent Teacher Association meeting or submitting an article to a community blog or local newspaper. At some of the participating schools, the local champion also recruits and coordinates the volunteers to conduct the idling observations. This person may be a parent, guardian, school nurse or paraprofessional, or another community member. By engaging someone from the community, the program gains a spokesperson who can deliver the campaign message through peer networks. The champion can also provide insight to CASEO staff on the languages and cultures of the school community so that customized documents and messages can be developed. To make it easiest for the local champions and school principals to spread the message to their communities, CASEO staff draft written materials for them and provide a program communication timeline to encourage consistency across all participating schools and program years. Implementation Strategy There are three types of tasks used to achieve the goals of the CASEO program. First, scientific research is conducted to get statistically significant data on driving habits for each participating school. In order to determine the total number of vehicles idling and duration of idling vehicles, CASEO student interns and volunteers conduct four-day long observation periods during the afternoon pickup at participating schools three times throughout the school year. These records are entered into a spreadsheet for data analysis. Results are compared for each school across the observation periods. Plus, the trends at each school are compared with the other schools from that school year as well as previous years to identify outliers. Second, parents and guardians receive written and verbal communication from trusted community members, such as the principal or local champion, throughout the school year. After the Baseline observations are analyzed, the results are used to announce the campaign and raise awareness about idling vehicles. First, the principal informs parents and guardians that the CASEO program is taking place at their school. Additionally, the local champion may staff an informational table at Back to School Night or the Winter Holiday Concert to talk about idling vehicles and air quality. CASEO also installs permanent, metal signs that say “Children Breathing: Turn Your Engine Off” in English and Spanish, at the school’s primary pick-up/drop-off locations for students. Third, the use of community based social marketing has been shown to be an effective approach to achieving behavior change for similar projects. In addition to the targeted messages from trusted community leaders, CASEO uses other forms of direct intervention to reach its goals. Students at participating schools encourage drivers to participate in the pledge to turn off their engines. Interns and volunteers who conduct idling observations also spend one to three days at each school talking with parents and guardians about the CASEO program goals. They distribute a brochure that briefly explains the benefits of turning off their engine and a keychain (or other prompt) that serves as a reminder to not idle their vehicles while transporting students to/from school.
Process & Outcome Objective 1: Reduce air toxics exposure at schools The CASEO program was created after results of air quality monitoring stations at two Denver Public Schools in June 2005-May 2006 showed concentrations of air toxics to be at levels exceeding established health benchmarks. The Community Based Air Toxics Study’s (CBATS) hourly data showed that there were noticeable spikes in pollution at 3-4 PM, which corresponds to school dismissal times. These elevated concentrations of hazardous air pollutants are likely caused by the vehicles associated with student commuting. Decreasing the frequency and duration of idling vehicles were targeted as ways to improve air quality at schools because idling is a voluntary, unnecessary behavior. In addition, CASEO connects school districts with technical and financial assistance to upgrade and retrofit their diesel school buses with improved emissions control technologies. The CBATS air quality monitoring was only conducted during a one-year grant period, prior to implementation of the CASEO program, so there is not primary source, localized air quality data. Instead, evaluation of CASEO’s primary goal of reducing children’s exposure to air pollution at schools is based on secondary data analysis. There are two data sources that are necessary to calculate the change in emissions at school dismissal time. First, DEH created an Emissions Factor chart that is weighted to match motor vehicle registrations in Denver County, accounting for average vehicle age and percent of alternative fuel vehicles. There are two rows on this chart, Light Duty Gas Vehicle (LDGV or car) and Light Duty Gas Truck (LDGT or truck), which contain the relevant data for the passenger vehicles picking up students. This chart can be used to calculate emissions of carbon, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, and particulate pollution for vehicles in Denver. Second, the total duration of idling vehicles and vehicle type are needed to calculate the specific emissions generated. This data is collected firsthand by CASEO student interns and volunteers, who record vehicle type (car or truck), arrival and departure times, and whether the vehicle was idling at dismissal time at participating schools during three, four-day observations periods throughout the school year. DEH enters the daily observation data into an Excel spreadsheet to conduct the data analysis. First, idling duration is calculated for each idling vehicle. The individual lengths of time idling are subtotaled per day according to vehicle type by adding the duration of all idling cars and trucks separately. Then, a weighted average by vehicle type for each observation period is calculated by using the percent of total vehicles observed on each day. Next, the weighted average total idling duration (in minutes) for cars and trucks are multiplied by the four emissions factors according to classification as LDGV or LDGT. These products are summed to determine the total emissions generated per vehicle type. The vehicle type subtotals for idling duration and emissions generated are then summed to determine the average daily totals for each school in each observation period. Then, the average daily emissions from the Baseline observation period is subtracted from the one for the Final observation period to calculate the change in daily emissions generated. If this number is negative, it represents a reduction in emissions while a positive number indicates an increase. Finally, the change in daily emissions figure is multiplied by 180 (number of days in the school year) to determine the amount of emissions that would have been created at school dismissal times without intervention by the CASEO program. A negative number represents avoided emissions, which is the primary program goal. These calculations are also conducted after the Audit (middle) observation period to evaluate program effectiveness. Outreach and education efforts can be increased or restructured before the end of the campaign and school year if significant reductions in idling vehicles and emissions are not observed. The campaign’s results are shared with multiple stakeholders and partners. First, the American Lung Association of Colorado receives the data to include in reports for their Metro Denver Clean Cities Coalition program. They also use these figures when submitting annual funding requests to encana natural gas. Second, CASEO provides administrators and local champions with press releases and sample newsletter blurbs congratulating the school for their successful reductions. Principals may also write a letter to parents announcing the program results. Third, interns include the summary statistics in their presentation to the funder and their school supervisor to demonstrate what they learned in their internship. Finally, results will be posted on program websites to encourage other schools to implement the CASEO program. Objective 2: Reduce unnecessary idling at school pick up times Parents and guardians who idle their vehicles at school dismissal times do not realize that they are exposing their children to elevated levels of air pollution that can permanently damage their respiratory systems. The CASEO program aims to raise adults’ awareness of the public health risks of idling to encourage voluntary behavior change to turn their engines off while waiting to pick up their children from school. While the primary goal of CASEO is to improve the air quality at schools by reducing pollution, the targeted behavior change is a reduction of idling vehicles. Idling behavior is observed at participating elementary schools during student dismissal time, but it is hoped that drivers will adjust their habits wherever they drive due to the outreach campaign. Student interns and volunteers record arrival and departure times, and whether vehicles are idling at dismissal time at participating schools during three, four-day observations periods throughout the school year. The interns then enter the data into an Excel spreadsheet, where number of idling vehicles are counted and duration of idling vehicles are calculated per observation day. Weighted averages for percent and duration of idling vehicles are then calculated per observation period. The Audit (middle) observation period is compared with the Baseline (initial) observation to determine if both the frequency and length of idling decreased at each school. If the Audit observations reveal an increase in idling (that could not be explained by extreme temperature fluctuations or other outstanding circumstances), then additional intervention can be planned, such as a reminder letter from the principal, hanging more “no idling” signs, and speaking directly with drivers at pick up times, giving them informational cards and products with campaign messages. At the conclusion of the school year, the Final observation period is compared with the Baseline to evaluate the program’s success. The four participating schools in the 2010-2011 school year experienced reductions in percent of vehicles idling (34-66%) and total idling duration (40-73%). Both the American Lung Association and DEH interns report these results to the funder, encana natural gas. Additionally, CASEO staff tailored specific press releases and sample newsletter blurbs for the local champions to announce the program’s success in each school’s community. These annual results will also be displayed and archived on CASEO websites.
Stakeholders Commitment to sustain the practice: CASEO is successful in forming collaborations with diverse partners because the missions of these organizations and agencies align with the objectives of an idle reduction campaign. Several of CASEO’s primary stakeholders, including Denver Environmental Health, American Lung Association of Colorado, and Denver Public Schools (DPS), would like to see the program increase its impact. CASEO currently has more schools and parents request information or express interest in participating in the program than it can adequately staff. Plus, DPS’s sustainability team is so supportive of CASEO that they would like to implement a no idling policy across the entire school district. In addition, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is conducting the first CASEO pilot project outside the Denver metro area in three mountain school districts. These signs of program growth and development indicate rich, long term partnerships. School administrators are enabled to participate in CASEO without committing too much time to creating each communication piece because the program supplies sample materials and a suggested communication timeline. These sample materials and observation forms are being developed into an online resource, which will make it easier for other schools to implement a CASEO program on their own. Program results and lessons learned can also be shared with all programs through online feedback loops that continually improve the idle reduction campaign. Future Plans to sustain the practice: CASEO is currently funded on an annual basis by encana natural gas. During the presentation of the 2011-2012 school year funding request, the encana Community Relations Advisor shared her ideas for additional technologies and communities that the program could expand to include. She suggested that engaging school districts in other parts of the state where her company also had offices would upgrade the program’s funding priority, increasing the amount of money it would be eligible to receive. More long-term stability would be possible if CASEO could also switch to a multi-year funding cycle so that it could plan longer range outreach efforts. The program should also pursue funding from additional foundations and government agencies so that it is not as dependent on a single source. The US Environmental Protection Agency might be interested in funding additional air quality studies at schools, such as the initial CBATS that initiated the creation of CASEO. CDOT’s participation in CASEO this year indicates that they may also be interested in providing future funding for the program. Even without additional financial resources, CASEO might be able to expand its reach by empowering local champions with more responsibilities at each school. For example, if volunteers coordinated implementation of the observation and communication plans with school administrators, CASEO staff would have more time to recruit additional schools and manage their local champions.
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