US Postal Service's Aging Trucks Keep Catching Fire

Just like all of the other 30-something-year-olds you know, they have a tendency to burn out. 

ABC7/YOUTUBE

Some of your local postal workers may use Sprinter vans or right-hand-drive Jeep Cherokees, but there's one vehicle that comes to mind when you think of a mail truck: the Grumman Long Life Vehicle, or LLV. It's the one you see in everything from movies to toys—and for many post offices, it's still in use—albeit past the end of their planned lifespans. Unfortunately, some LLVs are being retired in the worst way possible: by catching on fire. 

At least 407 LLVs have caught on fire since May 2014, according to government documents obtained by Vice through a Freedom of Information Act request. That's approximately one LLV fire every five days, at an average of around 70 fires per year. Fires happened across the country after varying periods of use, as Vice noted in its example of three different fires that happened within a 72-hour time period: 

On April 30, 2016, a United States Post Office letter carrier in Fall River, Massachusetts, left his truck to do a 20-minute loop by foot to deliver some mail. When he got back to the truck, the dashboard was on fire.

The next day, on the other side of the country, a letter carrier in Chandler, Arizona loaded his truck with the day’s mail. After driving for about 10 miles, the truck lost power and the engine abruptly shut off. He pulled over, got out of the truck and called his supervisor. While on the phone, white smoke came out of the truck. He started walking towards the truck to investigate when he heard a “whoosh” noise. The truck burst into flames.

Less than 24 hours after that, in Newport News, Virginia, a letter carrier driving her mail truck heard a loud pop and smoke started to come out of the engine. She turned the truck off and by the time she got out, a neighborhood resident came running out of their home to tell her the truck was on fire.

The 3,954 pages of documents related to the LLV fires included reports from engineering firms Trident Engineering and Rimkus Consulting Group into the causes of the fires, only to come up with no clear pattern as to what specifically was setting the vehicles aflame. Vice explains:

The fires occurred in hot and cold climates, at the beginning and ends of shifts, in the battery compartments, dashboards, and fuel pumps, and in vehicles that had both been recently maintained and were overdue for a check-up. They occurred on rural routes and city streets all over the country.

Of those torched trucks, 125 had been destroyed to the point where such an investigation was not possible. 

A quick search on YouTube is all it takes to find dozens of new and old examples of trucks catching on fire. Clearly, this isn't a rare occurrence, as reported by ABC7 and even Inside Edition, who told the story of a loyal postal worker who risked injury to rescue holiday gifts from a burning postal truck.

There is one very likely explanation for these fires given by the Post Office and the postal workers' National Association of Letter Carriers union as the car back as 2015: the LLVs still in use have exceeded their expected lifespan of 24 years. The USPS purchased the trucks starting in 1987 until their discontinuation in 1994, which means that the youngest ones on the road are now turning 26. Over 141,000 LLVs are still in use by the USPS, according to Kim Frum, a USPS spokesperson who spoke to Vice.

The LLV has been around a long time, with the USPS rolling them into its fleets in 1987. It's based on the Chevrolet S-10 chassis, and many are powered by General Motors' ancient, underpowered 2.5-liter four-cylinder Iron Duke engine. Later trucks got a 2.2-liter GM inline-four with an iron block and aluminum heads, but even that tech is over 26 years old now. At a time when we're eulogizing the four-speed transmission, these postal trucks still have General Motors' three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic transmission. 

LLV fuel economy sits at an average of 17 mpg in peak condition according to Environmental Protection Agency stats, however, ex-mailman Eric Brandt wrote in AutoTrader that the real-world fuel economy is frequently in the single digits. A newer, more efficient postal truck is severely overdue. 

The USPS's search for a Grumman LLV replacement started five years ago according to Fox News, however, they have yet to even decide on a vehicle. Frum told Vice that they expected to decide on the next postal truck by the end of the year, but that's also what they said last year.

The fact that the USPS is facing an existential budgetary crisis doesn't help, either. The vital public service has been saddled with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act passed in 2006 which required the USPS to set aside $72 billion for 75 years to cover for current and future employees' healthcare costs. The USPS hasn't been profitable since then, racking up $160.9 billion in debt, per numbers cited by the Washington Post.

No other corporation or government agency has such a requirement, and the postal service would have actually turned a profit over the past six years without it, Vice notes. The postal service is a completely self-funded entity that is meant to completely pay for itself. Without further government intervention to reform this, we could start seeing interruptions in service by September according to a Last Week Tonight exposé on the matter.

Frum declined to comment to Vice as to whether any postal employees were injured in these fires. That being said, their investigation uncovered just how dedicated your postal workers are to delivering your mail. Letter carriers mentioned in 26 of the reports actually went into the trucks while they were on fire to save as much mail as they could so they could continue their deliveries. 

So, as you contemplate purchasing one of the unburnt mail trucks that have made their way onto GovDeals, please consider a sweet drivetrain swap. The trucks' light weight makes them especially good for the "big engine, small vehicle" route, and we'd love to see it.

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