On Fire for School Bus Safety

A live-action event held for NAPT Summit and NASDPTS Conference attendees on Oct. 27, 2018, provided a real-world look at how training and bus equipment should factor into the conversation on school bus safety.

The evacuation exercise event was held at the Lee Summit Fire Academy near Kansas City on Saturday afternoon. Several hundred attendees gathered on bleachers overlooking a field in which three buses were set up, one on its side.

“Evacuation is the biggest (life-saving) action we can take in any bus-related fire event,” declared Assistant Fire Chief Dan Manley, who led the project. To establish a baseline for average evacuation times, 30 volunteers were called from the audience to play the role of students and participate in evacuation drills to determine the initial amount of time they would take.

Exiting the bus through the rear exit without having to first unbuckle seat belts took the adults one minute and 16 seconds. A subsequent drill in which seat belts were worn took them two seconds longer. However, when attendees wore seat belts and elected to keep their eyes closed to simulate navigating to the back of a smoke-filled bus, that time increased to two minutes and 27 seconds.

Attendees were quick to point out that children would react and behave quite differently due to young age and panic, which would slow evacuation. They highly approved of performing the drill with their eyes closed. One volunteer added that unfamiliarity with seat belts slightly hampered evacuation time.

“Each (student) demographic group creates different challenges for us with evacuation,” Manley noted. “The way we improve our opportunity for success is to train and educate the students that are riding on our buses.”

The first school bus was subjected to a carefully monitored fire, set in the engine compartment. Manley explained that batteries and fuel tanks had been removed for the safety of the people present, but the buses had not been treated with fire accelerants. Each had some backpacks and a partial bale of straw aboard.

As the first bus burned, the wind fanned the flames. Smoke billowed in the direction of the bus from which volunteers were performing the first evacuation exercise without seat belts. One later commented that, even from a distance, “that smoke is thick, it’s heavy, it’s black, and it gets you quickly—panic can set in pretty quickly.”

Manley agreed that smoke inhalation would prove fatal to individuals who were not able to exit the bus promptly. “In this situation, with the amount of smoke production, if we didn’t get out of that bus within that minute and 16 seconds, chances of surviving that are going to be limited. You can see how quickly that smoke production occurs,” he said.

In under two minutes, temperatures at the top of the bus reached 700 to 800 degrees, while those at the base were 200 to 300 degrees, Manley informed attendees.

He added that the danger is not over once students have left a burning bus. As heat increases, the windows and windshield shatter, tires pop and pressurized components may explode. Additionally, if the fire happens on a road where other motorists are present, smoke impedes visibility. The first priority should be given to ensuring children remain out of the roadway.

“Now you have a bunch of kids screaming and carrying on,” one attendee commented, recognizing challenges faced by the driver.

In a bus fire, seconds count. An evacuation would not start until someone smelled or saw smoke, Manley noted. He said that once a 911 call is placed, the Lee Summit Fire Department would arrive on-scene in about five to six minutes. Once firefighters arrive, they will not only douse the fire but also ensure all student passengers had evacuated. Another challenge they may face is the bus starting to roll down the street.

Once firefighters have the fire under control, they “identify the area of the bus where we have the greatest opportunity for survivability,” Manley stated. “We want to assess that area and try and affect a rescue, if we have an opportunity to do so.”

The second fire was set in a school bus that had rolled over onto its side. No volunteer evacuation drill took place on that bus, but onboard video showed firefighters assuming positions along the sides of the bus in imitation of the positions that students might be in.

The video showed that with the driver’s side door facing the sky and windows inaccessible, the only possible exits would be the rear door or roof hatch. Seats, backpacks and even the students themselves would pose additional challenges to evacuation.

One attendee noted that the windshield can be kicked out, but only if the fire is in the back of the bus. Manley added that improvisation is encouraged, such as residents or passersby helping break windows to create exit points. “Get out the nearest exit is the best thing to do,” he said.

The fire set in the back of the second bus was handled slightly differently to demonstrate how the blaze would start to die out, characterized by gray smoke, if the windows and exits were kept closed. As soon as emergency hatches were opened and windows began to break, the flames spread and black smoke billowed toward the sky again. As the fire burned hotter, the smoke column towered higher.

With a school bus on its side, first responders’ jobs are complicated. Access and egress points are compromised, and leaking fuel may pool under the bus to pose additional fire hazards.

The nature of school bus fires has changed over the past 30 years along with the materials used in the buses, Manly said. He explained that the natural wool and cotton materials used in the past have given way to synthetics that liquefy in heat and spread flammable material across the bus.

Whereas fires used to take five to six minutes to fully develop, now they can take three to four minutes to become full-blown blazes. And even flame-resistant or flame-retardant materials will burn at a certain temperature, he added.

“We all do evacuation drills throughout the year, and we kind of take it almost nonchalantly,” one attendee said.

Editor’s  Note: Read more about the 2018 NAPT Summit and NASDPTS Conference in the STN Show Reporter.