Safety Under Fire: Tracking school bus recalls - FOX10 News | WALA

Safety Under Fire: Tracking school bus recalls

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School bus fire in Grand Bay. January 22, 2018. (FOX10 News) School bus fire in Grand Bay. January 22, 2018. (FOX10 News)

Do you know how safe your child's school bus is? FOX10 News Investigates wanted to know.

We discovered when it comes to finding out how safe Mobile and Baldwin County buses are, there's little information, you, as a parent can find.

School bus fires happen nationwide

A school bus catches fire in Oregon and 15 students narrowly escape. Flames engulf a bus in Delaware and students rush out of harms way. In Iowa, a driver and a student die after getting trapped on a burning bus.

At least 11 other fires across the country, this year alone. One here at home.
In Grand Bay, a bus driver's quick thinking saves dozens of students before fire erupts.

Alma Bryant High School student Aliesha Andrews was horrified when it happened in her neighborhood.

"When I was getting off I could see the smoke like coming my way and then when I turned around, the whole bus was like engulfed in flames. It was scary. There was a lot of popping noises. You could hear the metal and the glass coming off the bus," Andrews said.

In 2016, 15 Scarborough Middle School students and a driver had only seconds to escape before flames took over their bus.

Two bus fires in two years in Mobile County.

"Undetermined" causes

FOX10 News Investigates wanted to know why these buses caught fire, so we started asking questions. Answers were hard to come by.

"What actually started the fire is just really unknown," Mobile County Public School System Director of Transportation Pat Mitchell said.

The state Fire Marshal's Office said the 2016 bus fire started in the engine compartment but the exact cause was "undetermined". 

An investigation into this year's bus fire showed leaking fuel could have started the fire, but once again, investigators can't say for sure. 

Tracking safety recalls on school buses

FOX10 News Investigates wanted to know if your kids buses are safe and if buses in Mobile and Baldwin Counties are under recall.

When we asked, the answer wasn't a simple one.
"We get recalls all the time. So to pin down a specific bus having recalls," Mitchell said. 

We called the company which made these two buses. A spokesperson said neither bus that caught fire in Mobile County was under an open recall.

But we wanted to check every bus in Mobile and Baldwin counties for recalls. 
Through an open records request, FOX10 News Investigates obtained the vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, for all 847 buses in Mobile County Public School's fleet and all 376 in the Baldwin County Public School's fleet.

"No results"

We tried to enter those VINs into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database, but information was limited, or non-existent.

Chad Carpenter with the Alabama State Department of Education wasn't aware parents couldn't track recall information.

Fox10 News Investigative reporter Shelby Myers asked, "Do you think that should be something that parents can do? To just simply type in your kids school bus VIN number and be able to look it up on their own?"

Carpenter replied, "I wouldn't have any issues with it. I mean public information I think is great for there to be checks and balances there for sure. So, no, there wouldn't be an issue with it on our end."

After our initial interview with Pat Mitchell, FOX10 News Investigates filed a formal records request with Mobile County Schools for proof of any recall fixes in the past five years. 
We didn't receive a response.  We reached out again a week later, still no response. 

Terry Wilhite, spokesperson for Baldwin County Schools said the bus dealership lets the school know of any recalls in their fleet and sends someone to fix the bus. 
He said the school system doesn't keep a copy of recalls and fixes, but it's all posted on the dealership's online database which the school has access to.

So if you're a parent wanting to check your child's school bus VIN number for recalls, there's not an open database for you to do it.

And if you can't check VIN numbers online, or recall information, how can you rest assured your kids are safe on Mobile County School buses?

Aliesha Andrews said it's a question her mother asks every time Aliesha steps on a bus.

 "She was like, 'Well I still get nightmares when you get on a bus that it will happen again.' It's like the bus catching on fire and me or my friend gets stuck on it," Andrews said.

School bus summer inspection reports

FOX10 News Investigates went a step further in our investigation. We asked the state for school bus summer inspection reports for Baldwin and Mobile Counties. Three Baldwin County buses had major deficiencies in 2016 and only two had major deficiencies in 2017. In Mobile County, 12 buses had major deficiencies in 2016. There were 18 buses with major deficiencies in 2017. That means the buses were unsafe to be on the road.

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