A school bus fire in Duncan Tuesday morning is again raising concerns about the safety of the state’s aging school buses.
A 1995 school bus caught fire en route to Duncan Elementary School around 7 a.m. Fifty-six students escaped safely after bus driver Teresa Stroble stopped outside the Olive Tree in downtown Duncan.
Stroble was able to get students off the bus in less than a minute after two students alerted her about smoke coming from the back of the bus, said District 5 Superintendent Scott Turner.
Fire officials and S.C. Department of Education officials are investigating the cause of the fire.
Safety and mechanical problems have plagued the state’s bus fleet for several years. In an effort to address the situation, lawmakers passed an act in 2007 to replace about one-fifteenth of the state’s fleet each year with new buses. The measure was designed to ensure no buses more than 15 years old were in use.
But a lack of funding has prevented the state Education Department from replacing the bus fleet on schedule.
“I can’t say this (fire) was that same mechanical issues with those (older buses) but it certainly raises the question … That will be part of the investigation,” said District 5 spokeswoman Melissa Robinette.
The state Department of Education refers to bus fires and dangerous overheating incidents as “thermal events.”
Since 2012, the number of thermal events has gone up.
A 2016 Department of Education report on the state’s bus fleet found that buses manufactured in 1995, like the one that caught fire Tuesday morning, accounted for 76 percent of thermal events since 1984.
Ryan Cothran, District 5’s director of public safety and transportation, said buses were inspected before the start of the school year, and the one that caught fire was not flagged to be pulled from the fleet.
“This is unexpected. We’re going to try to look into exactly what it was,” Cothran said. He said the ’95 buses that did show problems “were pulled before the year” began.
Across the state, school buses are owned by the Department of Education and used by districts according to their population and size.
Department of Education data from February 2017 showed that 50 percent of District 5’s school buses are more than 15 years old.
S.C. Rep. Rita Allison said lawmakers work each year to make funds available for bus replacement.
“Budget-wise, we’re trying to put as much money as we can into the bus fleet to be replaced,” she said. “We’ve had some tragic things go on with some of these buses. We’re trying to get them off the road.”
Turner, the District 5 superintendent, said the bus fire should serve as a wake-up call to legislators that something needs to be done about the aging buses statewide.
“I have mixed emotions about it. To look at that is terrifying to me. I’m proud of our driver,” Turner said of the fire. “I think it’s a call to our legislators. They need to put money into buying our buses and updating our fleet. This is happening all too often, and not just here, but across our state.”
(c)2017 the Spartanburg Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.)
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