The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued ten safety recommendations including one recommendation that all new and in-service school buses have automatic fire suppression systems. This follows the investigation of a fatal school bus fire that killed the driver and a 16-year-old student in Oakland, Iowa in December 2017. According to the data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a school bus fire occurs slightly more than once per day, with an average of 379.4 reportable fires per year.
School buses are not the only type of bus that is susceptible to fire. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) completed a study from 1999 to 2003 which found U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 2,210 bus fires per year. This translated to six bus fires reported every day. These fires caused an estimated average of three deaths, 30 injuries, and $24.2 million in direct property damage per year. More recent data compiled by the NFPA suggests that bus fire incidents have dropped slightly to between five per day.
Many other countries have already mandated fire suppression systems for buses and coaches to protect passengers, including 37 countries in Europe. In these European countries, beginning September 2020, new vehicles that carry 22 passengers or more are required to have an approved fire suppression system installed in the engine compartment. In September 2021, this regulation will apply to motor coaches.
The majority of bus fires start in the engine compartment. When a fire starts in an area that is difficult to see or smell the smoke, it can quickly spread to the cabin putting passengers and the driver at danger. At this point, a fire extinguisher will have little to no effect on the fire. The fire can rapidly engulf the cabin putting the passengers and the driver at great risk. An automatic fire suppression system works by automatically detecting and suppressing the fire before it spreads without human intervention. This allows the bus operator to safely evacuate the passengers.
With over 980,000 registered buses in the U.S., it is important to understand why buses should come equipped with fire suppression systems. It is commendable that the NTSB is improving safety for school buses with its recent fire suppression system recommendation. However, more can be done to improve bus safety in the U.S. by requiring fire suppression systems, like our counterparts in Europe.