After two Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District school buses caught fire in a month, the district held a press conference to share more information on the situation and reveal its plans on how to proceed.
A fire that broke out on Tuesday with only the bus driver aboard at the time was the second within the past month to mysteriously start on a CMS school bus. District officials held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss current and planned efforts for safety.
“We understand the concern with this. This is a very serious situation,” CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper said.
Stamper confirmed that the two most recent buses to catch fire were Thomas Built Buses of the same make and model, and that 259 of these are in use in the district, out of a total fleet of 1,078. After the second fire, she said, the district conducted a thorough investigation that failed to reveal significant safety concern. About 3,000 buses of the same make and model are in use across the state, she added.
Both of the school buses that caught fire were spares which were not on regular routes. Stamper explained that spares are allowed to be used if a regular route bus is pulled in for service.
“Until we know the cause of the fire, it would be premature to pull these buses off the road,” she said in answer to a reporter's question, adding that the district does not want to interrupt school schedules by unnecessarily pulling so many buses.
“On a daily basis, we repair buses when issues are called in, we adhere to our required 30-day inspection, and comply with our preventive maintenance schedules that are governed by the state of North Carolina,” she stated.
An investigation into the cause of the first fire, which happened on Oct. 19, was inconclusive. Individuals from the state Department of Public Instruction’s Transportation Services section, Thomas Built Buses, longtime bus dealer Carolina Thomas, and CMS are currently investigating Tuesday’s fire. CMS is working with law enforcement to determine if there was any tampering with the bus.
Stamper said that the bus that caught fire on Tuesday had been checked after October’s bus fire and that nothing was found to be out of order. “We are trying to do our very best to get down to the cause of this particular fire and then make the corrections and/or mediations accordingly,” she said.
Tracy Russ, chief communications officer for CMS, said that parents and the public would be updated as new information becomes available through the investigation.
CMS posted on its website the following five-point plan that they intend to implement due to the two recent fires.
- Investigation: CMS has asked the bus manufacturer, senior inspectors from the North Carolina Department of Instruction Transportation Division and fire inspectors from the City of Charlotte to conduct an independent investigation into the cause of this fire and to advise us of any possible widespread safety concerns.
- Immediate review: Maintenance procedures, practices and policies will be reviewed to protect the safety of our passengers and staff.
- The district wiill reinspect all buses of this type as areas of concern from this investigation are identified and will act as needed.
- Criminal investigation: CMSPD and CMPD are investigating, including a review of surveillance footage of the bus lot.
- Safety drills: All drivers and staff will participate in bus emergency-exit procedure drills.
Stamper said that bus drivers attend quarterly safety meetings which cover evacuations and pre- and post-trip inspections. She praised the drivers who acted appropriately during both bus fires and, in the case of the first fire, actually got 16 students to safety before flames engulfed the bus.
Stamper urged parents to continue sending their children to and from school on CMS school buses. She said that CMS drivers and mechanics perform multiple inspections each day before all student routes to ensure that the buses are as safe as they can be. Over 90,000 students are transported every day with “a lot of care,” she added.