Broken Buses: First Student "Bothered Tremendously"

A First Student mechanic installs a new exhaust pipe...

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - First Student bus company said Wednesday afternoon it has more work to do to ensure the safety of hundreds of school buses that carry nearly 20,000 students who attend IPS and Franklin Township schools.

"Our mechanics have been working nonstop," said First Student Region Manager Andre Dean. "We've made a lot of progress but we still have work to do."

The company has brought in managers and extra mechanics from around the Midwest to find and fix safety problems on its fleet of more than 280 buses. The effort is in response to WTHR's "Broken Buses" investigation that shows mechanical problems under dozens of First Student school buses. 13 Investigates inspected the buses with a master bus mechanic and found serious safety violations such as mis-aligned brakes, bald tires, holes in rusted-out exhaust pipes, leaking fluids and broken shocks.

"The things that you cited, they are definitely safety issues and a concern for our company," Dean said Wednesday, adding that First Student management is taking the investigation very seriously.

"Over the past couple of days we've brought in more than half the fleet to look at them for major safety violations, and we're going to continue until we're satisfied that all these buses are safe to be on the road," he explained.

Since Tuesday night, First Student has pulled buses off the road because of safety problems its own mechanics discovered during inspections. Bus 5139, for example, was leaking exhaust from a rusted-out hole in the exhaust pipe located just under the floor of the school bus. WTHR observed a mechanic replacing the rusted section of exhaust pipe at the company's south-side bus garage.

As of Wednesday night, there were still more than one hundred buses to inspect, and First Student says time is of the essence. Indiana State Police responded to WTHR's investigation by conducting a surprise inspection at First Student earlier this week, and state troopers will be back Thursday to spot check more buses. Vehicles that fail the inspection will be ordered out of service until they are repaired, according to Sgt. Brent Alspach, a trooper who oversees the state's bus inspection program.

While mechanics are working under the buses, mangers are focused on another issue: poor security at First Student's bus lots.

It's a problem 13 Investigates exposed after WTHR reporter Bob Segall and photojournalist Bill Ditton spent ten hours at First Student, crawling under buses to inspect them for mechanical problems. No one approached members of the investigative team to ask what they were doing. They gained access to the bus lots through gates that were unlocked and left wide open. Once there, they had access to hundreds of school buses. The doors to those buses were left open and in each bus, the keys were left in the ignition.

"That bothered me tremendously," Dean said. "We've hired extra security. We're going to bring in an expert to tell us how we can better safeguard our facility going forward."

By Wednesday afternoon, security guards were patrolling the bus company's property. After nightfall, the gates to First Student's west bus lot were closed and locked.

First Student says it has learned a lot over the past few days and now wants to reassure students and parents. The company isn't just fixing its buses. It is also trying to repair its public image.

"If our credibility out there from a safety standpoint is ever tainted, we lose," Dean said. "And we don't want anybody's children to be jeopardized because of anything we've done or failed to do. We have been doing everything to make sure these vehicles are safe. This is what we do and we have to be good at it because we have no margin for error."

First Student says it likely won't get all of its buses inspected before Thursday's visit by State Police. The company plans to have its mechanics work late all the way through the weekend to find problems and fix them.