School bus fires: What North Carolina is and isn’t doing to prevent them

Investigators

CARY, N.C. (WNCN) — School bus fires—they’re more common than you think.

CBS 17 is investigating after a Wake County school bus caught on fire in Cary.

No one was injured, but that fire could have been prevented if North Carolina had required a fire suppression system, as the NTSB is recommending.

At least once a day, the U.S. Department of Transportation says a school bus fire breaks out.

Last Thursday, Wake County Schools bus number 1122 caught fire with a student from Highcroft Elementary School on board. No one was injured in that fire but the bus had been inspected that very day, Wake Schools said.

“An investigation on the cause of the fire on bus #1122 is in progress. Early indicators in the investigation point to a failure in the air conditioning system.  WCPSS transportation staff has notified the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s school bus transportation division to support this ongoing investigation,” Wake Schools said.

Smartphone video from a passerby shows the fire broke out in the engine compartment, which is where the majority of school bus fires begin.

“Most of these are diesel engines, and most diesel engines are turbocharged and most turbocharged engines are extremely hot when they are running,” explained Marc Dinovo, a senior applications engineer with Firetrace International, which makes fire suppression systems for school buses. 

For parents, that’s an eye-opener.

“I would have thought a fire would start from a child or something,” said Heather Bradley, a mother of kids who ride a school bus.

Documents CBS 17 obtained show school buses in this state are only required to have three kinds of fire safety equipment—a fire blanket, fire block upholstery fabric and a fire extinguisher.

But, the fires you see in an engine compartment have a chance to become pretty involved and experts say it would quickly go beyond the capacity to fight by hand.

“You’re telling me a bus driver is going to have a chance to identify the fire, make sure the kids are evacuated safely and then pop the hood and attack it with a fire extinguisher?” said Dinovo. “That’s providing the driver is trained to use a fire extinguisher.”

After a fatal school bus fire in Iowa, the NTSB recommended that all school buses have a fire suppression system in the engine compartment.

Suppression systems are quite simple.

They generally are a cylinder filled with a chemical that can stop a fire within 2-5 seconds before it can get out of control once it’s triggered.

Most parents don’t realize the danger that an engine fire presents in a school bus.

“That’s scary to think about,” said Tiffany Williams, the mother of child who takes a school bus in Knightdale.

Since school bus requirements fall under the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction—CBS 17 wanted to know what that agency is doing about the NTSB recommendations which were made in August.

DPI’s spokesman Graham Wilson said in an email that, “DPI Transportation Services is aware that these recommendations have been made.” 

He added, “We monitor actions by NTSB. To our knowledge, none of these recommendations [have] been acted upon.”

In other words, the state is not going to require fire suppression systems in school buses without a mandate from the federal government.

That’s upsetting to some parents.

“I think it’s something that should be considered,’’ said Williams.

“They’re carrying our kids,” said Bradley. “That’s our precious cargo in there and I would expect them to have the utmost security measures for our children.”

Consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia was told that retrofitting a school bus with a fire suppression system costs between $2,000-$5,000 a bus, depending on the size of the engine compartment.

In Europe, legislation has been in effect for the last 8 years requiring fire suppression system in both school buses and municipal buses.

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