LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — How quickly can fire and smoke consume a school bus, and how long can it take to evacuate that student-filled bus, with or without seat belts involved? Conference attendees got to find out in a sobering demonstration on Saturday.
National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) staff members partnered with the Lee’s Summit Fire Department to enact on one school bus the length of time it takes for flames to engulf the vehicle. That bus was placed a safe distance away from another, that was not set on fire but was intended to show the “students” (played by 30 volunteers from the audience) aboard, and how long it might take them to evacuate.
Once a fire was set on the first bus, the volunteers on the second bus began evacuation procedures in three different scenarios. In one, the volunteers were not wearing seat belts. In the other two, they were wearing seat belts, but in one of those enactments, they closed their eyes to simulate the lack of visibility due to thick smoke filling the bus.
Then, a third, overturned bus was used to show how long a passenger might take to evacuate in that situation. Footage from cameras inside the bus streamed onto a screen showed firefighters enacting the struggle to escape that passengers in such a scenario would encounter as smoke filled the bus.
Personal items that students normally bring aboard, such as backpacks, were included on the buses.
Dan Manley, the assistant chief of Lee’s Summit Fire Department, told the audience that straw was used to create the fires in the demonstration, and that the batteries and fuel tanks had been removed from the buses to eliminate any hazards.
He also advised the audience to keep in mind that the demonstration was being conducted with adults, and that a real-life, panic-filled situation with students of various ages would likely be more challenging.
As firefighters set the first bus on fire, the evacuation time for the volunteer “passengers” not having to unbuckle seat belts was one minute and 16 seconds. The second scenario, in which seat belts were worn, clocked in just two seconds longer, but the third, in which volunteers wore seat belts and closed their eyes to simulate reduced visibility due to smoke, the evacuation time was significantly longer: two minutes and 27 seconds.
Meanwhile, the overturned bus had become completely filled with smoke by the three-minute mark, and at that point, Manley said, temperatures inside it had reached 900 degrees to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which would start breaking windows and increasing flame production.
He added that the total response time from when the fire department personnel would receive a call about such an incident to the time they would be able to respond and arrive on scene is about five minutes.
After the demonstration, some volunteers commented on their experience. One said that the smoke was so “thick, black, and heavy,” that “panic can set in pretty quickly.” Another noted that school staff members and students go through regular fire drills “nonchalantly,” but that scenarios like these are “evidence of why we do them.”
NAPT’s goal in presenting the demonstration was to show bus fire evacuation scenarios in a way that is as realistic and action-oriented as possible, Michael Martin, the executive director for NAPT, explained in the opening session on Saturday morning. He pointed to the recent school bus fire and crash in Mesquite, Texas, in which a student was killed, and the Iowa school bus fire in December 2017 that killed a student and a bus driver, as examples for the urgent need for school bus fire evacuation training.