NCDPI sends statewide memo requiring bus inspections following CMS bus fires

NCDPI sends statewide memo requiring bus inspections following CMS bus fires
(Ron Lee | WBTV)
(Ron Lee | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A statewide memo was sent to all of the school districts in North Carolina Friday that said certain buses must be reinspected after two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools buses caught fire within the last 30 days.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction sent the memo and said that buses created between 1998-2003 with a "Caterpillar engine" must be inspected again or repaired.

On Tuesday, CMS Bus 188 caught fire near Nations Ford Road and Downs Road. The driver reported she smelled smoke and stopped the bus immediately. She exited before the bus ignited, according to reports.

Witnesses say nearby workers saw the fire and rushed to help. They used about four fire extinguishers to help put out the fire.

Tuesday's fire on a school bus marked the second time a CMS bus has caught fire in the last 30 days. In late October, a bus became engulfed in flames along Dunlavin Way in east Charlotte. Students were on the bus when the fire started, but none of them were injured. Officials said the a bus that caught fire in Charlotte last month was the same make and model as Tuesday's bus fire.

Leaders with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say there are more than 3,000 school buses on North Carolina roads which are the same model as two school buses that have caught fire recently in Charlotte.

During a press conference Wednesday, officials said there are thousands of buses across the state which are the same make and model of the bus that caught fire Tuesday. They also said they have no plans to pull buses from that model off the road.

"Until we know the cause of the fire, it would be premature to pull these buses off the road," CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper said.

They have invited officials from the state and crews from the bus manufacturer, Thomas Built Buses, to look at the bus from Tuesday and inspect it.

"Nobody's going to walk away from this not taking a very thorough look, and taking some conclusion to the best of our abilities," Stamper said.

Firefighters said the blaze "seems to have originated in the engine compartment and spread into the driver's area and passenger compartment."

In the memo released Friday, the NCDPI said the source of the two bus fires were under investigation.

The NCDPI released this statement Friday:

"This event provides a good opportunity to remind our maintenance staff of several key inspection items that must be taken seriously to eliminate potential causes of fire for these types of buses."

The department says they informed "all counties of the potential for fire in the engine compartment due to deteriorating wiring harness wire ties on Freightliner FS chassis" in May 2011.

The state says they have seen buses that "have not performed the repair to the valve cover wires as requested or needed additional repairs."

A spokesperson with CMS says they take "any possibility of harm to students and staff seriously and has already been proactive in addressing areas of concern identified during investigations of bus #364 and bus #188."

CMS released this statement Friday:

"As a proactive measure, CMS is inspecting 250 school buses, activity buses and spare buses with similar engine types. These inspections are closely examining the wiring area of those buses, to determine if there is any indication of a failure."

All of the 259 buses that are the Freightliner/Thomas Built models have been inspected and show no areas of concern, according to CMS.

During the press conference Wednesday, CMS unveiled their five-step process it uses to "ensure student and staff safety."

1. Investigation -- CMS has asked the bus manufacturer, senior inspectors from the N.C. 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.
2. Immediate review -- Maintenance procedures, practices and policies will be reviewed to protect the safety of our passengers and staff.
3. We will reinspect all buses of this type as areas of concern from this investigation are identified and we will act as needed.
4. Criminal investigation -- CMSPD and CMPD are investigating, including a review of surveillance footage of the bus lot.
5. Safety drills -- All drivers and staff will participate in bus emergency-exit procedure drills.

A statement released on Nov. 2 about the fire on Bus 364 states that school buses with similar engine types were to be inspected.

A top priority of the district is to ensure the safety of students and staff on board any CMS bus. As a proactive measure, CMS is inspecting 250 school buses, activity buses and spare buses with similar engine types.  These inspections are closely examining the wiring area of those buses, to determine if there is any indication of a failure. The inspection of these buses is ongoing and so far, CMS transportation staff have not found any areas of concern.

Sources say the bus involved in the latest incident should have been checked before hitting the road.

Soon after the fire happened, an employee of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reached out to WBTV regarding the incident, speaking under anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the district.

The employee works in the CMS transportation department and has driven buses for the district in past years. The employee said he is now concerned about the safety of the school buses.

"When I heard that today my first thought is 'OK are the kids safe? Is the driver safe.' Thank goodness there were no kids on the bus," the employee said.

The transportation worker said he questions the upkeep of the buses and thinks some of them may not be getting the proper maintenance work they need. He worries that this may be the reason some buses are catching fire.

"Parents trust us to get their kids to and from school in a safe way so to see this on TV, it makes you wonder 'how safe are my children?'" the CMS employee said.

Sixteen students had to be evacuated from a CMS bus in January as it drove its afternoon route through east Charlotte. An alerted bus driver managed to get students off the bus as flames began shooting out from under the hood.

WBTV uncovered records showing the 12-year-old bus had a history of coolant leaks that caused the engine to start smoking just two weeks before the bus caught fire.

Maintenance logs provided by CMS in response to a public records request from WBTV show mechanics were called out to address the bus smoking not once but twice on January 6, 2017.

The first call description is listed as "road call overheat." The second work order description for the bus says "road service call smoking."

It is unclear what time of day the two service calls were made but the documents show the incidents happened in the span of the bus driving 70 additional miles.

PREVIOUS ARTICLE: CMS school bus catches fire, 16 students on board OK

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 19, 2017, firefighters responded to a call to douse water on the flames shooting out from under the bus.

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