Several hundred mail trucks burst into flames, burning beyond repair, in the past five years, according to a Trucks.com review of U.S. Postal Service documents and public news reports.
At least six fires occurred in September and October, and 15 have been reported so far this year.
The fires in the aging fleet of Grumman Long Life Vehicles — the classic boxy mail trucks used for decades to deliver the mail in neighborhoods across the country — tend to start in or near the engine compartment, according to an internal 2014 Postal Service memo.
Further USPS investigations showed that potential causes included failed fuel system components and overloaded wiring.
No mail carriers have died in the fires. At least one letter carrier was hospitalized with smoke inhalation, according to a report last year in the North Andover, Mass., Eagle-Tribune. Although the Postal Service warned its employees not to, drivers sometimes have risked injury by trying to save the mail inside a burning truck. At times passers-by have helped.
That happened in Green Bay, Wis., when a mail truck caught fire while making deliveries, according to Pat Van Egeren, president of the Green Bay branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers and a city letter carrier for the past 18 years. It was one of three mail truck fires that occurred within just a few months of one another in 2015 in his region, Van Egeren said.
“A letter carrier was literally just driving the vehicle on a roundabout underneath an overpass of a freeway and all of sudden noticed smoke and pulled over,” Van Egeren said. “Thinking he was doing a good deed but actually putting himself at greater risk, he started to unload the vehicle. He didn’t recognize that it was literally on fire on the front side. There were people passing by that assisted him.”
It only took several minutes for the Fire Department to arrive and extinguish the flames, he said. But the truck was ruined – the typical outcome of a mail truck fire. Their aluminum bodies melt at half the temperature of a typical steel vehicle body.
“The safety of our employees is a matter of great importance to the Postal Service,” said Kim Frum, a spokesperson for the organization. “Vehicles that are purchased for use by our employees are required to meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” she said. That includes any custom-made for the agency, including the current mail trucks and the potential fleet of 180,000 new custom delivery vehicles the Postal Service wants.
New Mail Trucks in the Works
The agency is testing five prototypes from a variety of manufacturers to select a replacement for its aging fleet, but has declined to talk about the process. More than 160,000 Grumman mail trucks entered service at various points from 1987 through 1994 and have a 24-year life expectancy. There are about 140,000 still on the road.
Two prototypes have passed field and durability tests, according to Christopher Jackson, director of city delivery for the letter carriers union. An additional prototype is being field tested after passing durability testing. Two others are still undergoing durability testing, according to Jackson.
The contract for up to 180,000 trucks could be worth up to $6.3 billion over nine years if not divided among competitors.
Reports of Mail Truck Fires
The total number of mail truck fires is unknown as the Postal Service does not release the numbers publicly. But more public reports of fires have begun to surface in recent years.
• A postal service memo in October 2017 noted 88 vehicle fires in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, although it’s unclear if they were all Long Life Vehicle mail trucks.
• As of July 2015, 77 LLV fires had been reported that year, according to a USPS report viewed by Van Egeren.
• From January to August 2014, 36 LLV fires were reported, according to the NALC’s Postal Record.
• A USPS memo in August 2014 on “Vehicle Fire Prevention” noted “An increase in vehicle fires has been experienced in the USPS fleet over the last year and a half. The increase of vehicle fires has primarily occurred in the right hand delivery trucks, particularly in Long Life Vehicles.”
Increased Frequency and Quality of Mail Truck Inspections Ordered
The Postal Service has taken steps to address the fires, including in January 2014 hiring an outside company, Trident Engineering Associates Inc., of Annapolis, Md., to investigate fires for a year. Possible causes were identified, including leaking fuel lines.
A lack of preventive maintenance may have contributed to the probability of fires. A February 2015 audit/management alert from the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector noted that 21 percent of the fleet, including the LLVs, was not getting mandatory scheduled preventive maintenance inspections on time.
That report also listed three reasons why the Postal Service fell behind on vehicle maintenance:
- Additional delivery requirements kept vehicles on the road longer
- A lack of backup vehicles
- Additional service requirements of the aging fleet
The mail trucks are supposed to be inspected twice a year if driven under 500 miles per month. Higher mileage increases the recommendation to three inspections annually.
The Postal Service issued an April 2015 vehicle fire prevention memo to its vehicle maintenance facilities urging “total compliance” with preventive maintenance-inspection guidelines.
In the case of the Green Bay fire, all the maintenance records were up-to-date, Van Egeren said.
The Postal Service also is working to improve vehicle inspections.
The agency has distributed detailed instructions on how to check for system wear. It noted that some fires “have been linked to failed fuel system components.” It included photos showing examples of cracking fuel lines and worn line clamps. It warned vehicle maintenance workers to flex lines to uncover cracking that would not be seen otherwise, for example. And it repeated instructions to replace O-rings after replacing fuel filters.
In an April 2015 memo, the USPS said Trident’s reports showed that “In some cases evidence was provided that oil leaks previously existed and this problem was not addressed.”
The memo listed steps vehicle maintenance workers were to take during each scheduled inspection, “including ensuring flexible fuel hoses have sufficient space from hot engine components.” Some aftermarket kits, it noted, twist fuel lines differently than the original design and “may require repositioning them away from hot components.”
In two memos in August and September 2016, the Postal Service issued more information on the potential causes of the fires and an expanded checklist for vehicle maintenance to follow to help prevent them.
It’s unclear whether those steps have decreased the number of incidents. The six fires that occurred in September and October of this year:
Oct. 15: A mail truck engine caught fire, apparently due to a short in the wiring during late afternoon deliveries in a mobile home park in Cody, Wyo., according to a report in the Cody Enterprise.
Sept. 26: A mail truck caught fire while delivering mail in western Elk River, Minn., according to a report in the Elk River Star News that blamed a broken and leaking brake line.
Sept. 25: A mail truck was fully engulfed in flames during an afternoon mail delivery in Forsythe County, Ga., destroying the vehicle and about half the mail it carried, according to the Forsythe County News. The driver reportedly stopped at a house to make a delivery, smelled smoke and saw flames coming from underneath the truck.
Sept. 24: A mail truck caught fire and was destroyed during afternoon mail rounds in Iowa City, Iowa, according to The Daily Iowan. The driver reportedly noticed smoke, pulled over and got all the mail out in time. The newspaper tweeted about the fire:
A mail truck caught fire on 1st Ave in Iowa City this afternoon. The cause of the fire is currently unknown. Firefighters are on the scene. Stay with the DI for updates. pic.twitter.com/HCT5HThUHW
— The Daily Iowan (@TheDailyIowan) September 24, 2018
Sept. 21: A mail truck making its delivery rounds in Poolesville, Md. was gutted by fire, according to a Facebook post by the local volunteer fire department.
Sept. 5: A mail truck caught fire inside a post office garage at night in Logan, Utah., according to Fox 13 News in Salt Lake City.
The aging fleet of daily mail trucks is breaking down and requiring more costly repairs. Despite Postal Service efforts to extend their lives, the trucks are the victims of time taking its toll, according to several reports, including a June 2014 Management Advisory on “Delivery Vehicle Replacement” from the USPS Office of Inspector General.
Although the agency has continued to add off-the-shelf commercial vans and other delivery vehicles to its fleet mix, the daily mail truck remains one of the oldest vehicles in any government fleet, despite the heavy wear and tear it’s subjected to.
Outside of the postal community, the extent of the mail truck fires has not been well known. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received only three consumer complaints on the Grumman vehicles, according to Jose Ucles, an agency spokesman. Only one of the complaints is directly related to the mail truck fire issue. The August 2016 complaint stated that 12 Grumman mail trucks had burned so far that year. The safety agency typically doesn’t investigate a lone complaint.
“USPS works directly with the manufacturer on issues they have with their mail trucks,” Ucles said in an email.
Letter Carrier Concerns
“The numbers that have been reported probably really pale in comparison with the actual real numbers that have occurred over time,” Van Egeren said.
The NALC’s director of safety and health, Manual L. Peralta Jr., has written about the mail truck fires several times in the union’s publication, The Postal Record. He’s documented Postal Service actions and those of its inspector general related to the mail truck fires and the aging fleet of LLVs. He has posted Postal Service memos and OIG reports and urged union members to do their required daily visual inspections and report any issues.
“If you do your job, the burden shifts to management to do its job,” Peralta wrote in his most recent column on the topic, in September 2017.
Peralta did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the mail truck fires.
Letter Carrier Don’ts
The Trident investigation resulted in Postal Service directives to letter carriers, in addition to the inspection memos sent to the vehicle maintenance facilities, according to Van Egeren.
- Don’t top off the gas tank. That could potentially cause fuel to overflow onto the fuel canister near the engine, he said. When the truck is started, “those fuel vapors could potentially ignite, then in turn cause a fire immediately,” Van Egeren said.
- Don’t plug any device, such as a cellphone, into the built-in cigarette lighters. “That was not designed to handle that load, so it could potentially overheat, and that could cause a fire hazard,” he said.
- Don’t try to restart a stalled mail truck more than three times. “Basically, the excessive engine cranking puts too heavy of a load on the wiring harness that could potentially result in fire,” said Van Egeren.
- Wiring inside the cab can sometimes be faulty because condensation may build up along the interior of the window frame and drip down onto the wiring if the wires are not covered properly, he said.
That’s what happened to Scott Van Duren, president of the Wisconsin State Association of Letter Carriers, who retired as a letter carrier in February. He recalled going to his mail truck before starting delivery about 10 years ago to do the mandatory visual inspection required of carriers.
“I did my vehicle inspection; it was early in the morning when it was still dark, and I see this blue light underneath the dash,” Van Duren said. “The fuse box was sparking and melting. I was lucky I caught it” before driving off.
The issue, he said, was that daylight running lamps had been added to the mail trucks, which required reconfiguring the electrical blocks underneath the windshields, where the wires were more prone to water dripping on them.
For now, letter carriers are looking at the potential purchase of the specially designed next-generation mail trucks now undergoing prototype testing at the Postal Service as the answer to the yearslong string of mail truck fires. The acquisition process has been too slow for many of them. The Postal Service once said it would decide this year. That’s been delayed, and the agency has not provided a new timetable.
“I am literally knocking on my little wooden kitchen table right now saying, ‘Thank god that there haven’t been any fatalities along these lines involving postal employees as a direct result of a fire in an LLV,’ ” said Van Egeren.
“If there had been, I’m sure this process would be further along,” he said.