Bringing Bus Fire Incidents to the Forefront

Posted on November 10, 2009 by Claire Atkinson, Senior Editor

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[IMAGE]MET11fires-.jpg[/IMAGE]Are bus fire incidents on the rise or waning in frequency? This question is difficult to answer because of the lack of a centralized reporting system at the national level to compile an accurate annual count.

The U.S. Fire Administration collects data from fire departments through its National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), but state participation is voluntary - different states have different reporting requirements, and the data obviously does not include fire incidents that went unreported or to which fire departments did not respond.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) compiles fire data analysis, investigates major fire incidents and reports on vehicle fires, but does not separately track transit bus fire data. However, available on the agency's Website is its 2006 report (www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/OS.Buses.pdf), "Vehicle Fires Involving Buses and School Buses," compiled with NFIRS data in the aftermath of the 2005 Texas motorcoach fire that claimed the lives of 23 senior citizens fleeing Hurricane Rita.

According to the report, "During the five-year period of 1999-2003, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 2,210 bus or school bus fires per year. These fires caused an estimated annual average of three civilian deaths, 30 civilian injuries and $24.2 million in direct property damage per year."

Reported bus and school bus fires appear to be flat, having peaked in 1980-81 but remaining steady since then, the NFPA finds. The report also shows that many of these fire incidents occur on non-road properties, equipment or other heat source failures caused three-fifths of the fires, mechanical failures and malfunctions were leading contributing factors, and 1999 model year vehicles were the most common in 2003 fire incidents.

"With all of the stimulus money that's going into the transit industry now, I'm sure there are more buses on the road so, in turn, you're going to have more bus fire incidents or incidents of any kind," says Angela Krcmar, marketing development manager for Firetrace International, a fire suppression system manufacturer. "Just about every fixed-route vehicle has fire suppression [systems] on it. They don't put it on there if there's not a problem."

Common causes of fires

Transit consultant Halsey King, of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Halsey King & Associates, identifies two areas on a bus that are typically the location of fires: the engine compartment and at the rear axle. "Turbochargers give the engine more power and efficiency, but they also run hot," he says. "They heat up the engine compartment and that exothermic heat buildup can't get out until you open the door."

At the rear axle, brakes and tires produce heat, which can only escape by tunneling up through the back wall of the bus, underneath passenger seating and the engine compartment. The muffler is also a heat source, King says.

Under the hood, several flammable fluids - such as engine oil, power steering fluid, windshield washer fluid, antifreeze and coolant - provide a medium that, in the hot environment of the engine compartment, could lead to a fire.

"Those products could start to spray from a small hole, which wouldn't be unusual at all, and hit something hot inside the bus engine compartment," King explains. "Eventually, dry goods like rubber hoses, sound deadening material and plastic parts will also start to smoke and burn."

The use of fuels other than diesel should also be taken into consideration, as some produce flammable vapors or run hotter, King adds.

Centralized database

To gather data, share knowledge, and standardize reporting and procedures, King proposes the formation of an industry summit on the issue of bus fires and a centralized database that would provide the basis for research into fire incident prevention.

"It would need to include all stakeholders: Departments of Transportation, state agencies, spec writers and end users who've experienced bus fires," he says. The group could develop consensus standards, outline definitions and plans to improve bus safety, standardize training for drivers and maintenance staff, and set standardized preventive measures for operations to follow nationwide.

Manufacturers should also have involvement in the process, particularly because training should follow what the manufacturer dictates, King says.

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