Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 2, 2018.

Buses are burning in Rome...and elsewhere



One day, two bus fires. That’s life in Rome, apparently—but the eternal city isn’t alone.

On May 8, two buses in the Italian capital burst into flames in separate incidents just hours apart, bringing this year’s number of bus fires in Rome to 10 and inciting widespread criticism of the city’s aging and poorly maintained fleet of public transportation buses. “Rome’s buses are mysteriously spontaneously combusting” one news headline read. Another asked, “Why do Rome buses keep bursting into flames?”

While the incidents seem to reveal a need to enhance bus safety in the city, data suggests bus fires outside of Rome aren’t the anomaly the media can make them out to be. Data from the United States alone proves bus fires, while still uncommon compared to other blazes, occur with some regularity.

A report published in November 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which analyzed data from 2004 to 2013, found that fires in motor coaches (defined as buses designed for long-distance passenger transportation) occurred almost daily on average, while fires in school buses occurred more than daily for a combined average of over 550 each year. And that’s just for two types of buses. “Studies suggest that fires on all types of buses are reported as often as nine times per day,” the report says. Similarly, an NFPA report published in 2006 found that, on average, from 1999 to 2003, six bus fires occurred each day in the U.S., including trackless trolleys and school buses. More recent NFPA data suggests that from 2011 to 2015, the number fell to 4.6.

Both the DoT and NFPA reports cite mechanical failures as a top cause of bus fires. In Rome, those failures occur because of old, infrequently serviced city buses, according to New York Times reporter Gaia Pianigiani, who witnessed a bus burst into flames from the backseat of a cab on May 8. “The buses are too old and almost certainly too little serviced,” Pianigiani wrote. “The two buses that burst into flames on Tuesday were built in 2003 and in 2004. On average, public buses should be in service for six to seven years, not 15, transportation experts say.”

Aware of the problems in cities like Rome, the Italian government last year launched a plan to renovate the entire country’s public transportation fleet, Pianigiani said, but the process has been moving slowly. ATAC, the company in charge of Rome’s public bus and rail transportation, in particular has a reputation for absentee employees and passengers who get away with riding for free, she said, heightening the challenge for bolstering bus safety in the city. So far this year, nobody has been seriously hurt in any of the Rome bus fires.

But history demonstrates just how catastrophic bus fires can be.

In 2005, 23 people were killed when a fire tore through a bus that was evacuating nursing home patients from Houston in anticipation of Hurricane Rita. A federal investigation found that the company that owned the vehicle failed to conduct proper maintenance and inspections, resulting in the deadly fire.


Grenfell hearings begin near anniversary of deadly blaze

Ten days before the one-year anniversary of London’s Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people on June 14, 2017, hearings began in the government inquiry into the incident. The judge-led inquiry is expected to last over a year, and aims to expose the causes behind the fire as well as prevent future catastrophic blazes from occurring.

According to BBC News, early evidence presented in the inquiry pointed to a number of inadequacies in the high-rise building itself that led to the rapid spread of smoke and flames and the high number of fatalities. For example, reports by five expert witnesses, which were presented as evidence in early hearings, show that the fire doors, dry risers, and smoke control systems inside Grenfell Tower didn’t function properly. Additionally, the reports point to a lack or failure of broader guidelines in the United Kingdom related to fire alarm systems and exterior wall assemblies in high-rise residential buildings. Read the evidence and follow updates on the inquiry online.

In response to the fire, NFPA released a number of resources to guide officials through the fire safety risk and regulation of combustible exterior wall assemblies, including components such as combustible cladding. The tools, as well as the NFPA Journal feature article on the Grenfell Tower fire, “London Calling,” are available online.


Hundreds die in Central American volcanic eruptions

Not long after volcanic eruptions began plaguing Hawaii in May, eruptions from a volcano named for the Spanish word for “fire” proved far more deadly in Guatemala. By some reports, 150 people died, and as of June 17, about 200 more were still missing, after the Fuego volcano spewed hot ash and dirt over villages in the Central American country.

Firefighters in Guatemala during rescue efforts following deadly volcanic eruptions

Firefighters in Guatemala during rescue efforts following deadly volcanic eruptions. Photograph: Getty Images

The hardest-hit area was the village of San Miguel Los Lotes. The New York Times chronicled the devastation there in an article titled “A Volcano Turns a Town Into a Cemetery.”

“I’ve lived there 50 years,” one San Miguel resident told the Times. “The volcano would grumble and make noise. We never thought it would take our things and leave us with nothing.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: AP/Wide World