Over the past few months, the suffering of American citizens has been notable.
With so much human tragedy along the Gulf Coast, it is hard for any of us to sense anything but frustration and helplessness. But we can contribute, as individuals and collectively as an industry, if we use our knowledge and skills in ways in which we are most familiar.
We know that the tragic bus fire in Wilmer, Texas, near Dallas on Sept. 23 is in the capable hands of the National Transportation Safety Board. But it is also important for the motorcoach industry — operators, associations and manufacturers — to reflect and consider changes that might be made to prevent such an event from occurring again.
The Texas bus fire could appear to the casual observer as an isolated event, yet from a risk management standpoint, this loss may have been the culmination of factors that were there for all of us to see.
The bus fire that took 23 lives (22 people survived the fire) may have been the bitter fruit of a long series of errors. According to Texas safety investigators, the brakes on the coach were defective and poorly maintained, but it’s uncertain whether these defects caused or contributed to the fire, which is believed to have begun in the area of the right rear tire and tag axle.
Bus fires have not been the subject of broad inquiry, making it difficult to quantify or catalog their occurrence. A few years ago, however, in scanning some files I did have access to, it was my best judgment that at least one serious and consuming motorcoach fire occurred every week in the U.S. This is a great deal of risk that seems to have gone unrecognized. What hadn’t happened, and thus seemingly lowered the priority of an overall investigation, was the general loss of life that is now a part of our history.
Culmination of errors?
It would be wrong to do an instant analysis of the Dallas tragedy. Time and investigation will sort out what appears to be the “perfect storm” of events culminating in a disaster. But what do we know about coach fires in general? In conversations with claims personnel, those charged with making first-hand investigations and determinations as to cause, subrogation and claim payment, at least 90% of bus and coach fires began at the rear of the coach, from the wheel wells’ aft.
The causes of these fires became well known to those investigators and were usually easily identified. But for those of us who need to live in the future, this recognition needs to be followed with the action steps necessary to produce change that enhances safety and prevents fire. From a risk management perspective, perhaps it is time to evaluate and consider an admittedly incomplete list of some safety possibilities.
The human factor
As with so many things in our business, safety often begins with the human factor. The capability of a driver to prevent, evaluate and properly respond to an emergency is a critical element of a vehicle fire-response plan. This requires training, especially for fire-risk inspection associated with tires and the engine compartment. It should also cover passenger safety announcements, evacuation procedures, the use of fire extinguishers and the identification of volunteers who will assist a disabled rider in the event of an emergency.
A well-trained professional driver can make a difference even in the absence of many engineering fire-related “fixes” identified in the following paragraphs.
Over the past fifty years, bus and coach egress has changed considerably. In early motorcoaches, a door was installed along every row. Later, exits were limited to the entry door and side rear exit (often left side, with a red light overhead). Today’s motorcoaches have a power-operated front door and exit windows. They also have roof hatches, which can be helpful in a vehicle rollover but seem to have no functionality when fire evacuation is needed in a non-rollover event.
Emergency window exits are problematic. Lifting an exit window is for the able bodied, and of course, in Dallas (and in many other places), that demographic was in short supply. Pushing a large, framed piece of glass upward far enough to create an egress pathway requires significant strength at the outset, and endurance because the window will close as soon as the human lifting power assistance is removed. The airlines have 90-second evacuation criteria; should buses have a similar requirement?
Fire-suppression systems are available, and they work. In fact, a number of transit systems are heavy users of such systems. In a fire, time is the enemy, and any system that extinguishes, or even just delays the onset of a major conflagration, can and should be a part of the coach’s standard equipment.
With the installation of suppression systems in engine areas and wheel wells, along with appropriate checks and regular maintenance of them, these systems could be a powerful safety tool.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations have a requirement for a motorcoach to carry a fire extinguisher, a miniature and portable fire-suppression system.
While an excellent idea, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) specification for this fire extinguisher leaves much to be desired. Two sizes of extinguisher are noted: a high-capacity unit for HAZMAT carriers and another, much smaller one for all other commercial vehicles.
Certainly, the high-capacity extinguisher mandated for HAZMAT could be, in the absence of suppression systems, made mandatory on coaches. This is an area of passenger safety inquiry that might prove valuable.
The oxygen danger
The role of oxygen in use aboard a motorcoach was a clear and important part of the Dallas fire, but the specific implications of it are as yet unknown.
In guidance recently issued by the DOT, it is apparent that we have much to discuss in this area. A 99-pound limitation on oxygen on a coach has been advanced by the DOT, but in the absence of research, it may be that that arbitrary amount, culled from unrelated hazardous materials regulations that never contemplated onboard oxygen actually being released, might just be plain wrong. From a practical standpoint, driver control of the weight of this unmanifested hazardous material is also problematic.
Tire fires are not unusual. The dual tires at the rear of the coach are, by virtue of vehicle design, almost impossible to check during a driver inspection (ask any driver or watch them do an inspection — that inner dual hardly even gets a glance). The installation of what now appear to be viable electronic tire pressure monitoring systems may need to be standard procedure.
One step after another
Safety is most often the result of taking small steps that prevent the storm clouds of serious loss from forming. Our biggest collective fear, the all-consuming fire under conditions where evacuation is apparently not achievable, has now been realized.
Now the hard work of examining this failure, gaining the knowledge we need to prevent another such event tomorrow, and having the fortitude to implement change are critical. Our passengers, to whom we owe the highest degree of care, expect nothing less from us.