by Bob Crescenzo
While the NTSB report on the Riverside Community School District bus fire focused on a specific event, it is important to recognize that any bus company can experience the two main issues outlined in the report: the first was not following a company policy and the second was the issue of a bus fire and how to manage it.
It is very important that your company follow and monitor policies you have in place. This driver’s medical conditions may have affected the driver’s ability to properly operate the bus and manage a crisis. It appears the school district was not following their existing policy of monitoring their drivers’ physical abilities. It is always a good risk-management tool to review and update all of your driver management policies and audit compliance with them on a regular basis.
The second major issue identified in the report is the actual bus fire. Since 2007, Lancer has had over 300 bus fire claims reported. The majority of these claims have had cause and origin studies conducted. While we insure other types of buses and passenger carrying commercial vehicles, it is important to note that the vast majority of those claims–280–occurred in buses.
When controlled for the number of vehicles in any commercial class and compared to the overall number of vehicles insured, the percentage of fires to vehicles is increasing. Even with the introduction of fire suppression systems, Lancer’s data do not reflect a reduction in bus fire claims. Bus fire claims represents only one percent of all claims. The severity of these claims accounts for more than six percent of total claims costs. Presently Lancer has up to 35 bus fire claims reported each year. This number has remained the same regardless of the number of vehicles insured or the presence of fire suppression systems.
The average cost of these claims is now over $140,000, and that cost is increasing on an annual basis. Lancer has spent over $35 million dollars managing bus fire claims over the last 30 years. These costs are generally absorbed by the policyholder and Lancer, due to the fact that there is very little potential for subrogation and the loss adjust expenses (LAE) are quite high. The high costs are generally associated with expensive physical damage and low bodily injury. However, that can change with even one event that includes passenger injury or death. The expense for a claim such as that might well reach the policy limits of $5 million dollars.
A careful analysis of fire claims and causes finds: Engine, electrical, part failure, cables, fuel lines, battery, 225: wheel well, tire, brakes, driver, 65; arson, other bus fire, 10.
The actual number of bus fires may be unknown even to Lancer, because: not all buses are insured for physical damage; unreported claims; no physical injuries; limited property damage; low value of bus due to age and mileage; and high deductible amounts on the policy.
Lancer has provided cause and prevention information, directions and best-practices suggestions to policyholders and the industry:
- Inspect All Fuel Lines and Hoses
- Check All Wiring to Avoid Electrical Fires
- Clean Engines Regularly
- Follow All Manufacturer Maintenance Recommendations and Recalls
- Be Careful of Underinflated Tires
- Don’t Drive on Flat/Overheated Tires
- Train Drivers on Pre-Trip Inspections
Fire suppression systems have been available on buses manufactured in the U.S. since 2010 and 2011, depending on the manufacturer. Currently standard equipment, for many years they were optional. There has been slow adoption and, when factoring in the length of fleet turnover time, it will be another 5 to 10 years before there will be reliable data determining if these systems are reducing bus fires.
Fire suppression systems are not required in the United States and therefore the comparison to other countries is not valid at this point. Few buses are retrofitted with fire suppression systems, so they are generally only available on later model and year buses. This is further complicated by the fact that the lifespan of the systems is generally thought to be 10 years depending on the maintenance plan and cycle as well as the replacement of components over that 10-year period. Finally, the vehicle may have one to three owners over that period, and it is difficult to determine how effectively the system has been maintained from one owner to the next.
There are several risk management issues for fire suppression systems that should be considered in operations management, including: who monitors the company maintenance cycle; has the suppression system been added to the preventive maintenance schedule; how drivers are involved and trained; when are parts replaced; when should the system be tested; and are replacement parts and material in the maintenance budget.
When applied to a larger company risk management plan, there are additional considerations should a company have a fire on a bus with a fire suppression system: Did the company evaluate the age, condition and maintenance of the system before buying the bus? Did the company create a greater liability by not maintaining the system? Is the company exposed to punitive damages as a result?
Once a fleet has any buses that are equipped with fire suppression systems, it is very important to know and understand the system(s) that have been installed. A fleet may have more than one manufacturer, model and year, and even within the same bus manufacturer, there may be different fire suppression systems used. In a mixed fleet of new and previously owned buses, it is necessary to anticipate that several will be used.
These recommendations are made to manage multi-vehicle and multi-manufacturer fleets:
- Read and understand warranties, which generally last one to three years from manufacture; know if the warranty is transferrable; read the warranty carefully and understand what is covered;
- Work with the manufacturer on the maintenance of pins, cylinders, hoses, suppressant agent, nozzles, etc.; if the system has discharged, it must be recharged prior to vehicle use–do you have a plan for that, such as a contract with a vendor for maintenance?
- Does the system have a “test feature” to determine if it is working? Is this testing part of a preventative maintenance plan? Is preventative maintenance on suppressions system(s) documented? Are system recalls monitored?
- Does the maintenance budget reflect ongoing costs associated with fire suppression systems and parts?
Additional risk management issues should be considered to reduce the risk of bus fires and fire suppression system failure. These become critical to the overall financial health of any passenger transportation company and may apply to other areas of an ongoing maintenance program. These include:
Expand tire and wheel well inspections, maintenance and repair; Only use manufacturer-recommended replacement parts and follow or use manufacturer installation or installers for any interior electrical components; improve routine maintenance and engine cleaning programs; expand maintenance to include additional engine, electrical, turbocharger and fuel line inspections, repairs and replacement;
Include fire suppression and tire pressure monitoring systems when purchasing a bus; train drivers about what to do if there is a fire; conduct training on evacuations, use of fire extinguishers and use of fire suppression and tire monitoring systems; ensure passenger/customer safety announcements that include evacuation procedures.
Bus fires will continue in commercial passenger vehicles in the United States due to slow adoption and infiltration of bus fire suppression systems in fleets. The use of fire suppression systems and tire pressure monitoring systems in other counties have resulted in a reduction of bus fires. However, without a legal mandate, that has not been the case in the U.S. Good communications and driver training on prevention and evacuation, as well as providing passengers with safety information, are important steps in limiting and mitigating the impact of bus fires.
Bob Crescenzo is vice president of safety and loss control at Lancer Insurance.