Modifications to South Carolina’s fire-prone school buses not making fleet safer

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WJBF) – Modifications to South Carolina’s fire-prone school buses aren’t making them any safer.

There have been 108 cases of buses dangerously overheating or catching on fire since 1995.

Despite routine inspections the 2016 School Bus Fleet report shows occurrences are on the rise again.

Click here to read South Carolina’s School Bus Fleet report. 

According to the Department of Education the occurrences of bus fires and dangerous overheating are collective called “thermal events.”

To minimize the number of these cases the state decided to reroute the electrical makeup of the buses, in addition to extra inspections by shop personnel.

However, in that same report State Superintendent Molly Spearman said her biggest concern is the inability to recruit and retain maintenance technicians.

“Any fire is one too many,” said former S.C.D.E. mechanic Trevor Mattingly.

Half of South Carolina’s fleet is rear-engine school buses, just like one in Duncan, S.C. that caught fire in May.

The report shows that 80 percent of South Carolina school buses, that overheat to dangerous levels or catch fire due to turbocharger and electrical issues, are rear-engine buses.

“These buses are falling apart,” Mattingly told WJBF NewsChannel 6. “There were design flaws from the get go and on top of that they are outside of their serviceable life.”

The recent spike in bus fires doesn’t come as a surprise to Mattingly.

In his time with the S.C.D.E. he says he was asked to modify the internal makeup of the buses as a temporary fix.

“They’ve tried to correct the problem, by rerouting battery cables to try to get them away from transmissions.” Mattingly said.

The 2016 Fleet Update indicates the state did reroute and secure cables, add brackets and secure casings to reduce overheating.

But rather than replacing the fire-prone fleet, the state asked Thomas Built Bus experts to advise mechanics on more ways to prevent the likelihood of overheating and fires.

Still, Mattingly says internal changes were just the start.

“The federal [government] states [buses] have to have roof hatches, the ones in the back and a side emergency exit.” Mattingly told WJBF NewsChannel 6. “South Carolina took it one step further, stating that they needed to put a second emergency door on the opposite side of the bus.”

Mattingly says the structural modifications were made without consulting bus engineers, and instead of making the buses safer they had the opposite effect.

However, the report says the state did consult experts before making any changes.

“You have a big open cavity on either side of the bus, it makes the bus too flexible. It flexes too much, all the rafters that support the roof, the rafters are cracked.” Mattingly said.

“If one of those things rolls over you will not be able to get out of it,” former S.C.D.E. mechanic Jarred Willis said.

“Why is that?” Asked NewsChannel 6’s Stefany Bornman.

“Because once it rolls over on its top and it compromises that super structure, and it bends, the side doors won’t open. The front door won’t open, You might be able to get the back door open, but it depends on how much it gets bent.” Willis said.

The state decommissioned 216 of the rear-engine buses in 2016.

According the 2016 report, replacing just 380 school buses would cost $34.1 million dollars a year.

There are currently 5,582 buses in use right now.

Count on WJBF NewsChannel 6 to bring you the latest on this developing story. 

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