School bus fires happen daily; how to stop them from turning deadly

Investigates

Federal Safety investigators have found that deaths in a school bus fire in western Iowa in 2017 could have been avoided.

KELOLAND Investigates been looking into the National Transportation Safety Board’s findings and what is being done here in Sioux Falls to ensure your student’s safety on the school bus.

School bus fires aren’t as rare as you may think. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, they occur daily totaling millions of dollars in damages every year. They aren’t usually deadly.

But a 16-year-old student and a driver lost their lives in western Iowa after becoming trapped on a bus during a fire.

Now, the NTSB says the driver shouldn’t have been behind the wheel and that busses need updated fire suppression systems.

The federal regulations on fire suppression systems have not been updated since 1971.

School Bus Inc., the private company contracted by the Sioux Falls School District is performing its annual safety check on its buses.

All the emergency exits are checked and the fire extinguisher sits on the floor immediately next to the driver’s seat.

“We’ve actually had a couple of electrical fires up in the front. The drivers hurry up and get all the kids off and run up and get the fire extinguisher and put it out. We’ve never had a bus burn up,” Jim Shafer of School Bus Inc. said.

In the case of the Iowa fatal school bus fire the NTSB found that the fire extinguisher on that bus was not readily available to the driver or passenger.

“Drivers must be physically able to help ill or injured passengers,” Robert Sumwalt, NTSB Chairman, said.

The most alarming finding in the federal investigation was the poor health of the Iowa bus driver. He was using a walker and was scheduled to undergo back surgery.

“The driver in Oakland had been allowed to continue driving, despite the fact the transportation supervisor, the school principal and the driver’s coworkers knew of the driver’s physical impairment, Sumwalt said.

The driver and student couldn’t evacuate the burning bus and had to wait for bystanders to break open windows to try to get them out.

The NTSB says the Riverside Community School District had done away with physical performance tests for drivers, despite state requirements.

School Bus Inc. drivers must pass yearly physicals meeting federal guidelines.

“You’ve got hearing standards, you’ve got sight standards, you’ve got lifting, our drivers are required because we are federal motor carriers to a 50 pound limit,” Shafer said.

Investigators said the Iowa fire likely started in the bus’s turbocharger, which overheated after the bus’s rear tires got stuck in a drainage ditch.

“Fire suppression systems, fire retardant interior materials and improved fire safety performance standards could have provided more time for the driver and the student in this tragedy,” Sumwalt said.

Shafer isn’t sold on fire suppression systems for school bus engines.

“We do have some motor coaches with those systems on them. They’re not fail safe. They’re very expensive to put on the bus. I know the busses we have them on, we’re constantly having to have the fire extinguisher companies down because the system fails,” Shafer said.

But he does point out that by state law South Dakota’s bus seats must be lined with fire resistant material

“You can take a paper bag, what they call a paper bag test, and they light it up and set it on here; takes much longer to start this seat on fire than a regular seat,” Shafer said.

A significant  number of school bus fires were started by students on the bus. South Dakota students are put through two evacuation drills a year. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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