There has been no shortage of school bus fires in the news lately. Reports in the past few months have included:
• An empty school bus in Massachusetts caught fire while warming up.
• School buses in Alabama and South Carolina caught fire while students were on board (all were safely evacuated).
• Tragically, a school bus in Iowa caught fire and took the lives of its driver and a student.
The reasons for the fires are many: turbocharger, engine, and mechanical failures occur; wires loosen or rub against engine parts; old parts lose their integrity; tires explode; circuit boards become overloaded; and leaks release inflammatory fluids. Fortunately, few injuries or fatalities have resulted from the fires.
Inspection and maintenance are the backbone of school bus fire prevention, and that’s the first thing the South Carolina Department of Education (DOE) addressed when its school buses started catching fire more frequently. Following the top-to-bottom inspections, buses with equipment or mechanical problems were repaired or taken off the road immediately, per Ryan Brown the South Carolina DOE’s chief communications officer says.
South Carolina also upped its inspection schedule. While it normally inspects buses five to seven times a year, it made seven inspections a year mandatory for its fire-prone 1995 and 1996 rear-engine buses. The state also brought in an outside automotive engineering company and engineers from the bus manufacturer to review its maintenance and safety procedures. “You don’t want people grading their own practices,” Brown says. “It was important to have the manufacturers, their engineers, and a third-party opinion validate our practice.”
To prevent school bus fires, the South Carolina DOE also took preventive action. It installed heat sensors, which alert the driver anytime a bus overheats, in all the engine compartments of its 1995 and 1996 buses.Driver inspections are also crucial in preventing school bus fires.
As replacing buses comes with a hefty price tag, the South Carolina DOE is buying many of its new school buses with a master lease program. Rather than spending at least $20 million upfront for new buses, the DOE buys new buses with a loan secured by the treasurer’s department and makes annual payments on each one for five years. Brown says the bank will secure the loan as long as the DOE gets recurring funding from the South Carolina General Assembly. The DOE hopes to use the lease-to-own model for the majority of its school bus purchases in the future.