"Routine" Gas Leak Results in Major Explosion

As reported last month in part one of this column, on Feb. 13, 2010, at 6:24 A.M., the Western Reserve Joint Fire District was dispatched to a reported gas leak from a stove in a residence at 2816 Center Road in Poland Township, OH. Station 91 was the closest to the call and responded initially with...


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As reported last month in part one of this column, on Feb. 13, 2010, at 6:24 A.M., the Western Reserve Joint Fire District was dispatched to a reported gas leak from a stove in a residence at 2816 Center Road in Poland Township, OH. Station 91 was the closest to the call and responded initially with Engine 91 (equipped with a 1,500-gpm pump and 750-gallon tank) and Ladder 91 (a 75-foot quint with a 1,500-gpm pump and 400-gallon tank). These units arrived together approximately 10 minutes after the initial call.

Our sincere thanks to Chief David C. "Chip" Comstock and the members of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District, especially those operating at this incident, for their assistance, cooperation and friendship. Additionally, our thanks to the mutual aid companies from the City of Struthers, the Villages of New Middletown and Lowellville, and Springfield Township for their assistance.

This account is by District Firefighter John Walsh (21 years of experience):

I responded to the scene as the engineer of Ladder 91. Upon arrival at the scene, I exited the vehicle and chocked the wheels. I met Firefighter J.R. Warren, the acting officer, who informed me that he would proceed to the front of the structure to see if he could assist the Engine 91 crew. (He had previously started the generator and illuminated the scene lights on the ladder.) I grabbed two portable radios, using one to monitor the fireground traffic and the other to monitor the dispatch channel.

I noticed the Engine 91 crew on the front porch of the structure, and Warren on the B side of the house near the meter. I also noticed Firefighter Scott O'Hara, the engineer of Engine 91, walking toward the front porch with a pipe wrench. I began circulating water on the ladder due to the cold weather conditions. While facing the pump panel, I heard a noise that sounded like a jet taking off or the sound of a backdraft in a Hollywood movie.

I turned and saw the house explode. Flames traveled from the rear of the house toward the front. I watched Warren thrown from the house approximately 10 to 15 feet. I saw the house lift off the ground several feet, and upon returning to its foundation, the front porch collapsed on what I thought was the Engine 91 crew. I radioed dispatch that we had an explosion and requested mutual aid from the City of Struthers due to the collapse and the fact that firefighters were trapped. I also requested two ambulances.

I left the ladder's pump panel and proceeded to Engine 91. I noticed Warren trying to get to his feet. I saw Firefighters Steve Dubic and Troy Stewart and realized they were not beneath the debris. I again notified dispatch that we had an explosion, with fire and no entrapment, and requested additional mutual aid. I pulled a 1¾-inch line and stretched it to the front of the house to provide protection to any firefighters who were trapped beneath the porch. Shortly thereafter, Firefighters Al Rivalsky Jr. and Terry Ferrick self-extricated from beneath the porch. I positioned myself at the A/D corner of the home with the hoseline. Shortly after calling for water, the entire building collapsed. I notified dispatch that all firefighters were accounted for, and that we had PAR (personnel accountability report) on the fireground.

Chief Comstock arrived on the scene and I provided a full report and size-up of the events that had taken place and that all firefighters were accounted for. I returned to Ladder 91 to set it up for defensive operations at the scene. I used all 400 gallons in the tank of the aerial in order to provide a quick knockdown before a water supply could be established. Thereafter, a decision was made not to use the aerial. Instead, the deck on Engine 91 was used and additional handlines were pulled to protect the exposures. As additional crews from mutual aid departments came to the scene, I assisted in providing information to those crews and directing them with respect to the operation of our engine and other apparatus on scene.

This account is by District Firefighter J.R. Warren, acting ladder company officer (18 years of experience):

I responded to the scene on Ladder 91 as the officer. Upon arrival, I went to check on the Engine 91 crew. I proceeded around the D and C sides of the house, looking for the gas shut off. Not able to locate the shut off, I then returned to the A side, and then headed to the B side of the house. The Engine 91 crew was on the front porch. I located the gas meter on the B side of the house. I cleared icicles away from the top of the meter, and began clearing ice and snow away from the bottom of the meter in an attempt to get to the shutoff. I had a small adjustable wrench which I attempted to use, but was unsuccessful. I then called for a larger wrench from the Engine 91 crew. I also heard Rivalsky calling for a ventilation fan from the engine.

Right after I called for the wrench, the house exploded. I remember very little from that point. I remember pain in my face. I recall blood on my gloves. My next thought was where was the rest of the Station 91 crew? I made my way to the front of the house, where I noticed three firefighters standing. Rivalsky was pinned underneath the roof, but was able to self-extricate. I was unable to catch my breath and went to the ground. I was assisted to the street by Stewart and Dubic. After getting to the engine, I noticed that my helmet was missing.

I then assisted in stretching a four-inch supply line to the hydrant. I attempted to establish a master stream using our aerial ladder in order to suppress the fire at the house that had exploded. At that point, I was removed from the ladder by the order of the chief and was required to seek medical attention at the hospital. At the hospital, I was treated for lacerations and abrasions, a broken nose and a concussion.

This account is by Chief of Department David C. "Chip" Comstock (28 years of experience):

I responded to Station 92 to take the district's command vehicle to the scene. Initially, there were two other firefighters at the station who were going to respond with Engine 92. New Middletown Engine 62 was already enroute to the call, and I informed the two firefighters that they could ride with me in order to get additional manpower to the scene more quickly.

The officer of Engine 91 announced that there was a major gas leak at the residence. When I was approximately one block away, the Ladder 91 officer, John Walsh, yelled over the radio that there had been an explosion and that mutual aid was needed at the scene. Thereafter, he also notified dispatch that there had been a building collapse and that firefighters were injured, and that he needed additional ambulances to the scene (one ambulance was already enroute to the scene non-emergency).

Soon thereafter, I arrived on scene to observe fire throughout the first floor of the structure and the porch collapse. I next noticed Firefighter Warren being assisted away from the structure by two other firefighters. Warren's face was bloody. Firefighter Walsh met me and quickly advised me of the events that had taken place to date. More importantly, just prior to the transfer of command, he informed dispatch that all firefighters were accounted for and that we had PAR. He again confirmed that in our face-to-face meeting. The water supply was in the process of being established and I instructed the chauffeur of the engine, Firefighter O'Hara, to use the deck gun to knock down as much fire at the house as possible.

The house then collapsed, and I asked dispatch to confirm for me the mutual aid units that were enroute to the scene. I then requested an additional engine from the Village of Lowellville, three additional ambulances, and that both the gas and electric utility companies respond to the scene, since the explosion had also caused power lines to fall across the road.

At that point, the primary efforts were focused on protecting the two residential exposures on the B and D sides, and to also suppress the fire as much as possible. Unfortunately, the gas could not be shut off, and the gas company had to dig to the main in order to shut off the gas. In the interim, a 10- to 15-foot flame remained in the rear of the structure that could not be extinguished. The fire was brought under control at approximately 9:30 A.M. The cause of the gas leak and the source of ignition remain under investigation.

Lessons learned included:

  1. Training is critical to the safe and successful outcome of an incident.
  2. Firefighters must be familiar with and recognize the hazards of each type of incident.
  3. Personnel must use the safety equipment provided to them, including gas meters and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  4. Hoselines must be placed and a water supply established as soon as possible at a gas leak. This was not done, but would not have affected the outcome.
  5. There is no such thing as a "routine call."
  6. Sufficient manpower must be provided at every call, based on the risk involved. Always expect the worst, and consider using automatic mutual aid when necessary.
  7. Understand that some outcomes are the result of luck (good or bad), but the only way to combat that which you cannot control is to be cautious.

The following comments are by Chief Goldfeder based on discussions with the writers and others:

It's clear that the members of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District (WRJFD) experienced what others we have written about in this column have — a positive experience from a potentially horrific incident due to factors such as good training and equipment, a little luck and a blessing. There are many departments that would not have responded as trained or prepared as they were — and the results could have been much different. Just the use of their bunker gear (full head to toe) made a difference, but how many times do we see photos of firefighters operating without their gear? Every day, numerous websites show photos of clueless firefighters not using the equipment they are issued. PPE isn't an option, yet so many firefighters choose to simply blow it off — and then something blows up and we lower another flag. It should be noted that in addition to full PPE, the two firefighters on the porch were masked up and their meters were activated as they got off the apparatus.

One point worth looking at is the response of this fire department (and yours) to a reported inside gas leak. What do you send? Some departments send a full first-alarm structural fire response — which is the right answer. It's a gas leak and gas explodes, so why wouldn't a department send a full first alarm? Any other answers than "we should" are not considering the incident potential for the civilians as well as the firefighters.

Imagine if the WRJFD sent a single engine without a meter and none of the members were geared up? This would be an entirely different story. In this case, as noted above, the WRJFD treats an inside gas leak as a structural fire and sends a full first-alarm assignment, including automatic mutual aid. After all, the assignment can always be sent back, but calling for it after things go bad at a scene can severely compound the problem. This close call, like all of them each month, creates an opportunity for us to review what we are doing at our own fire departments, compare it to this incident, and reevaluate if what we were doing prior to this should change based on what we have learned.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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