Industry experts discussed the ins and outs of fire suppression systems on school buses, focusing on how the systems actually work and the importance they can play in buying precious emergency evacuation time for students with special needs.
Max Christensen, the executive director of student transportation for the Iowa Department of Education, moderated a Nov. 11 panel during TSD Virtual on the installation process and details of fire suppression systems on school buses that drive special needs routes.
Christensen was joined by Peggy Stone, supervisor of transportation for the Kanawha County Schools Elkview terminal in West Virginia, and Michael Warner, the fleet director at Cobb County Schools located northwest of Atlanta.
Warner explained that some fire suppression systems in buses react similarly to a fire extinguisher when exposed to unsafe heat levels in the engine compartment. A signal will melt in extreme heat, triggering a release of the pressure valves and instantly suppressing the flames. Stone added that the systems are designed to remain functional in the event of a bus crash even if the hood of the bus breaks off.
Fire suppression systems are not designed to completely douse any flames, though they might succeed in doing just that. Their true intent is to at least reduce the number of flames and the heat to give passengers adequate time to evacuate from the vehicle.
Cleaning and resetting the system after it’s been used doesn’t require any special environmental considerations or special equipment, added Warner. He said school bus maintenance teams need only to use a power wash to clean the engine compartment and to replace the cylinders to recharge the system.
Stone said 75 of Kanawha County’s fleet of 165 school buses — all lift-equipped buses and rear-engine transits — currently have one of two fire suppression systems brands installed, with the district researching a third because of price.
Other school districts nationwide are only adding them to their special needs transportation vehicles. Warners said Cobb County has three different systems installed on 142 school buses with wheelchair access, to comply with a Georgia state requirement.
Stone added that her district has experience with two different systems on its special needs route buses and is planning on installing fire suppression on all buses from this point on. Warner said that there are no plans to install more systems on Cobb County buses unless required by federal or state law.
Both Warner and Stone agreed that there is a strong possibility that federal law will require fire suppression systems on all school buses in the near future. The National Transportation Safety Board called for fire suppression systems on all school buses last year, when publishing its findings from an investigation into an Iowa school bus that caught on fire in December 2017 and killed the bus driver and teen passenger.
One reason Warner cited as a deterrent to adding more systems is the cost of purchasing and installing the systems. Stone added that the fire suppression systems Kanawha County Schools has reviewed cost between $1,400 and $8,400 per bus, depending on the brand and extent of the system.
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Fire suppression systems must also undergo frequent maintenance checks as well as a yearly inspection, which Warner said can add costs for districts, as these inspections must be conducted by third-party companies. While he said that he is exploring the possibility of training and certifying school district employees to perform these inspections, he added that it is also a liability concern if the system malfunctions.
Stone stressed the importance of having certified mechanics check the systems as well as training school bus drivers to check the systems before their routes. Drivers can push a button that tests the entire system to ensure that everything is in working order. The test will indicate with signal lights if there is an issue with any parts.
Warner added that if a fire suppression system is not fully functional, Georgia requires the bus to be taken out of service until the issue is fixed.
Christensen concluded the session by listing some of the reasons districts are hesitant to install fire suppression systems, including costs, maintenance, and proof of necessity.
Meanwhile, Warner referenced multiple incidents where the fire suppression system successfully activated and extinguished bus fires, as well as times when buses not equipped with fire suppression systems ignited while parked in garages and resulted in the entire bus burning out.
Christensen added that as more districts become informed about fire suppression systems as well as see reports of success from districts that have already installed them, transportation professionals may begin to see the benefits of adding the systems not just to their special needs student transportation vehicles, but to the entire fleet.
Editor’s note — This version clarifies the current state of fire suppression system usage by Kanawha County Schools in West Virginia.