Broken Buses 2: The Video

Mechanics say this orange ring on a brake rod indicates the brakes are severely out of alignment.
Published: .
Updated: .

Bob Segall/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - Mechanics at First Student bus company worked late into the night Tuesday to inspect hundreds of school buses at the center of a WTHR investigation.

The 286 school buses are used to transport more than 17,000 students to Indianapolis Public Schools. Their safety is now being questioned because of WTHR video that shows maintenance problems under dozens of buses, according to mechanics and state police who reviewed the videotape.

The video shows shocks that are not attached to axles, rendering them useless, and some buses in which shocks had been removed and not replaced; an exhaust pipe that had a 3-inch hole rusted through the top which could allow carbon monoxide into the school bus; oils and engine fluids flowing from the underside of school buses; broken and separated brake linings and brake adjustments that exposed an "O-ring" on brake push rods.

"When that orange ring is showing and the brake rod far exceeds two inches, it means the brakes are way out of alignment and the bus is not going to stop properly," said a certified bus mechanic who accompanied WTHR to the First Student bus lot. "The stopping power of those buses is going to be very, very minimal. The brakes need to be changed now."

The mechanic, who has nearly 40 years of experience working on school buses and trucks, asked not to be identified because he works for another transportation company in Indiana.

WTHR sought another opinion from a master-certified school bus mechanic in Muncie. He said the problems discovered under the First Student school buses pose a safety threat to students, bus drivers and other motorists.

"That's very dangerous," said mechanic Brian Scott as he watched the video. "The shocks are definitely an issue that needs to be addressed and the brake adjustment is an immediate and bad safety concern. There's definitely a major safety hazard with that."

The safety hazard prompted Indiana State Police to conduct a surprise inspection at First Student Monday afternoon, just minutes after troopers watched WTHR's video.

Based on the videotape, State Police Sgt. Brent Alspach said he would not want his own children to ride those school buses, adding that it justified immediate action.

"We can't have that bus doing a route this afternoon if it's looking like that, and we need to go down there and take a look at them," Alspach said at WTHR studios. "At this point and time, I'd say that entire fleet needs to be rechecked."

State Police troopers were immediately dispatched to First Student, but they checked only three buses. One was ordered to be taken out of service due to missing shocks, but police said the other two looked "fine."

"Based on the buses we inspected, I don't think there's a major problem here," Alspach said.

What about all those brake adjustments that mechanics were so concerned about?

Police say to know for sure if the brakes are dangerously misaligned, they'd have to inspect each bus to observe the push rod when the brake is activated.

State Police told WTHR they didn't have time for those inspections Tuesday or Wednesday because of other commitments. After looking at the company's maintenance records and talking with supervisors, troopers also said they were satisfied with First Student's bus maintenance program. They will return to First Student Thursday to spot inspect several buses.

Scott is not comfortable with the state's decision.

"When we're talking about brakes and we're talking about a school bus, there's really not much room for second guessing or chance or letting stuff go," he said.

But "letting stuff go" is common, according to some First Student bus drivers who say maintenance problems on their buses often go weeks before they are fixed.

"Nothing gets fixed quickly around here," one bus driver told WTHR as she got on her bus Monday afternoon.

That bus drivers and others who have contacted WTHR said they don't want to talk on camera or be identified for fear of being fired.

Dave Ward, a negotiator for AFSCME Council 62 which represents First Union's Indianapolis bus drivers, said safety is a primary concern for bus drivers as they work out details of a labor agreement with the company.

"They feel management does not take concerns about bus maintenance seriously and there is a feeling that the concerns are shrugged off," Ward said. "Brakes are certainly one of those concerns, and we are working with First Student to address things like that at the bargaining table."

Regional managers from First Student came to Indianapolis Tuesday to oversee inspection of the company's fleet. Inspecting all 286 buses on the south-side lot is being done "just as a precaution," according to a company official, and the process is expected to take several days.

Managers said they are not willing to speak on camera, but a company spokeswoman insists mechanical problems are corrected quickly.

"We deal with any issues if it affects the safety of our vehicles immediately." said Kimberly Mulcahy. She sent WTHR a statement on behalf of First Student which states "At First Student, safety is a core value. We take the safety of our vehicles and the safety of the children we transport very seriously."

But First Student employees told WTHR that the company's repair shop is behind on repairs because it does not have enough mechanics.

"We're behind. That's for sure," one mechanic said. "I would say we should have 10 or 11 people."

The shop has only eight mechanics to handle more than 280 buses.

That ratio (one mechanic for every 35 school buses) is well above that at IPS's bus garage. IPS operates approximately 300 of its own school buses with 14 mechanics on staff, a ratio of one mechanic for every 21 buses.

"We are told that is the norm for maintaining school buses, and we are comfortable at that [1:21] number," said IPS public relations director Mary Louise Bewley.

Bewley said she was not aware that First Student's mechanic-to-bus ratio was considerably higher. "It's something we'll be talking to them about...keep in mind, we can re-bid the bus contract every year."

"We are very glad State Police are taking a closer look at the buses and we are waiting to get a report back from them," she added.

Statement from First Student

"At First Student, safety is our top priority. We perform regular scheduled maintenance and ongoing preventive maintenance inspections at strategic intervals to ensure our buses are safe and to predict and prevent problems. In addition, each driver, in accordance with DOT regulations, conducts a multi-point inspection before leaving for his/her route, using the latest electronic equipment to ensure our buses are in proper operating condition.

We follow all state requirements and inspect our buses according to company policy, which is every 4000 miles or 4 months which ever comes first. We deal with any issues if it affects the safety of our vehicles immediately. We have a staff of certified mechanics and others who are properly trained to repair and maintain our vehicles at this facility.

At First Student, safety is a core value. We take the safety of our vehicles and the safety of the children we transport very seriously."

Broken Buses story archive