Warsaw (Ind.) Community Schools’ bus shop caught on fire on the evening of Jan. 7. The fire destroyed three school buses, a service truck and several supplies.  Photo by John Ryan

Warsaw (Ind.) Community Schools’ bus shop caught on fire on the evening of Jan. 7. The fire destroyed three school buses, a service truck and several supplies. Photo by John Ryan

WARSAW, Ind. — A school district’s transportation department is picking up the pieces after a fire destroyed the majority of its bus shop, and its shop manager is sharing some lessons learned.

The fire occurred on the evening of Jan. 7, said John Ryan, the shop manager at Warsaw Community Schools. A mechanic and one of the secretaries discovered the fire the following morning when they arrived to open the shop and found it full of smoke. Soon after, the top of the door started falling down and fire came out, he added.

“[The building] was probably fully engulfed,” Ryan recalled. Firefighters were able to put the fire out within a few hours, but had to come back a couple times for reflares. No one was injured in the fire.

The shop lost three school buses, which were parked in the working bays — one was a special-needs bus — and its service truck.

The district had to cancel bus service that day because the keys for all the buses on the lot were thought to be lost in the fire, Ryan said. Some of the keys were kept in a supply room that drivers could not access due to fire damage, and the rest were kept in Ryan’s office, which was completely destroyed, he said. When the department was able to resume service, it covered all 65 routes with a few spare buses that were left undamaged, and borrowed a special-needs bus from nearby Wawasee School District.

Around noon that day, the firefighters recovered some of the keys from the supply room, which had double-layer drywall and was fireproof.

“The drywall saved everything in that room,” Ryan said.

Since the fire, the transportation department has had several meetings with separate groups of investigators and appraisers who handle the building, the content and the lost vehicles. They have also had several meetings with a forensics team. Most meetings have lasted from four to eight hours, Ryan said.

Currently, the transportation department does not have Wi-Fi in their garage, so Ryan has had to catch up on emails from home.

“Almost everything is done on [smart] phones and radios right now,” Ryan said. “We’re lucky for that.”

Meanwhile, several partners have pitched in to help: a factory across the street is sharing its warehouse space so that shop staff can work on the buses out of the cold, and Wawasee School District has offered use of its garage. Additionally, the transportation department’s vendors have done special runs for much-needed parts.

“They have really stepped up for us, as have our technology and maintenance department,” Ryan said. “They have let other things slide to give us a hand. We really appreciate that.”

Also, Thomas Built Buses ramped up production of a special-needs bus that the department ordered by a month, so they received it less than one week after the fire.

“Our local dealer asked them to put a rush on it, and they jumped on it,” Ryan said.

He also said he is thankful for all of the local and neighboring fire departments who helped as well as the outpouring of help from the community.

A few lessons learned, Ryan added, are to take pictures, keep inventory up to date, keep a set of keys in another location for all units, choose a central meeting place for staff in case of emergency, and put all important items — including paper — in a steel desk or safe at the end of the day.

Ryan recommends that shop staff take pictures of all tools on racks, shelves and tool boxes as soon as possible.

“Humans have poor memories,” he explains.

Fortunately, the department kept an updated inventory of all its parts, and its tool dealer had a list of every item it bought since 1998, which it gave to the insurance company. Shop staff recovered three boxes of tools, but lost one entire box because it was located next to the bus that burned, and they can’t access it because the roof is lying on top of it.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, and may not be determined until March or April. The district’s insurance company is looking for an architect to build a new shop.

“You’re at a loss for a while once this happens,” Ryan said. “We are starting from scratch, and that’s kind of overwhelming.”

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