CBS 58 Investigates: USPS mail truck fires
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The United States Postal Service is under intense pressure to deliver absentee ballots in time to be counted this November.
Mail delivery has slowed down recently, and federal courts have ordered a halt to some changes implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
The Postal Service is also facing a growing problem with its iconic fleet of mail trucks, they're aging, and catching fire.
The Postal Service's delivery backbone are mail trucks known as long life vehicles. They were custom built for the Postal Service and were designed to last 24 years. However, 70 percent of those vehicles are now 25 years and older, and they may be running borrowed time.
Across the country, USPS mail trucks carrying everything from prescriptions to ballots are burning up. Videos captured by news crews and the public alike, show these vehicles burning, rolling into a yard aflame, even catching fire at a gas station.
Milwaukee School of Engineering Instructor Rick Dykowski is not surprised.
"Even under the best of circumstances things can wear out," said Dykowski.
He said vehicles vibrate while operating and rust over time. As they age, parts begin to fail more often.
"As things start to get old, voom, the failure rate kind of jacks up at the end, in that you get more and more and more of them," said Dykowski.
He said many components in an engine bay are combustible, but said the number of fires appeared to be unique.
"That is an unusual failure mode," said Dykowski.
A 2015 newsletter published by Wisconsin's regional letter carriers union warned the vehicle fires are occurring more frequently. It also advised letter carriers not to try to save the mail inside.
Postal Service records published by VICE News show at least 407 mail trucks have caught fire since 2014.
CBS 58 Investigates reviewed the records and found five such fires happened here in Wisconsin -- one at the Milwaukee maintenance facility undergoing repairs, four while out delivering mail.
Investigators couldn't determine the cause of a fire in Menomonee Falls because of the damage to the truck.
In Belgium, investigators traced the fire to a worn insulation cable near the battery.
Investigators blamed leaking fuel lines for torching a truck in West Allis.
CBS 58 Investigates found a sixth fire in Onalaska not included in the records. Our CBS affiliate in LaCrosse captured video of the scorched, melted truck.
"We have many 30 year old vehicles, we're desperately in need of new vehicles," said Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Government audits have found the Postal Service's financial troubles have hurt its ability to buy new trucks. DeJoy told Congress he'd like to change the terms of a $10 billion taxpayer loan authorized by Congress.
"What I'd like to see is the note that we have negotiated with Treasury, be used to get long-term financing to buy new vehicles," said DeJoy.
USPS has over 140,000 long life vehicles on the road. It's trying to get new custom built vehicles manufactured, but a recent audit found the program won't start delivering new trucks until January 2022, four years behind schedule.
Many mail carriers interviewed by the fire inspectors described saving as much mail as they could from the burning trucks.
USPS sent us a statement saying:
"The safety of our employees is of foremost importance to the Postal Service. Vehicles that are purchased for operational use by our employees are required to meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). The requirement to meet all FMVSS requirements applies not only to the purchase of commercially built vehicles but also purpose built vehicles. In addition to these requirements, the Postal Service has implemented mandated maintenance schedules and preventive maintenance inspection procedures for the existing Postal Service vehicle fleet, including Long Life Vehicles (LLV), with the goal of making sure vehicles used by postal employees are safe to operate before they are used each day."