Gas leaks. In some cases, they have become like automatic alarms — when we get toned out and think "it will be nothing." Once in a while, however, we get fooled.
Naturally, our response must be that every run is serious and has great potential for horrific outcomes — and we must expect the worst — until "we" (the fire department) gets there, sizes up and determines the action required and the risk to all affected, from the occupants to our members. I love the old saying "it's a fire until we get there and determine that it is not" — and that goes for literally any kind of run or emergency we can get dispatched on.
Historically, there have been some horrific gas leak-related emergencies resulting in the loss of firefighters. One, for example was the North Division Street explosion on Dec. 27, 1983 in a warehouse in Buffalo, NY. The building contained an illegal 500-gallon propane tank whose valve was broken off while it was being moved and the building was evacuated. The propane started to leak and eventually reached an open flame. The tank exploded, killing all five firefighters assigned to Ladder 5 and two civilians, damaging a dozen city blocks and causing millions of dollars of damage to fire equipment (see "Guest Commentary: The Heroes of Dec. 27, 1983," Firehouse®, February 2009).
On May 7, 2009, Prince George's County, MD, firefighters were operating at a significant "smell of gas" at the Penn Mar Shopping Center when they felt a gust of air rush toward the building, which had just been evacuated because of a possible gas leak. Suddenly, a fire was discovered in the rear of the building. Literally a split second later, a massive explosion knocked some firefighters to the pavement and blew two nearby firefighters off their feet. Many of the 40-plus people evacuated from the building watched as the blast lifted its roof and sent glass and debris deep into the parking lot (see Unit Citations in this month's "Heroism & Community Service Awards" program and "Progress Report — Maryland: Prince George's County Explosion Injures 9, Destroys 6 Stores," Firehouse®, July 2009).
Gas burns and is explosive, so it is only natural for us to expect the worst possible situation. The reason we don't always do that is because gas explosions are not that frequent — but they do happen, and when they do, it can be a close call or something even worse.
The Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Ohio experienced a very similar situation. Just like all of us have been, firefighters there were dispatched to a reported gas leak and while they were on the scene investigating, there was a massive explosion. The Western Reserve Joint Fire District serves Poland Township and Village, suburban communities in southeastern Mahoning County. Mahoning County is on the northern end of the Appalachian Corridor in eastern Ohio, on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, in the heart of the "Rust Belt." The Village of Poland was established in 1798, and the fire department was first incorporated in 1923. A fire district was created with the township in 1978 and now operates from three stations using 70 paid-on-call firefighters. 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.
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. Firefighters were informed that the occupants had exited the house and, pursuant to protocol, a full-box-alarm assignment was dispatched for the interior gas leak. Dispatched on the initial call were Western Reserve Joint Fire District ("The District") Engines 91 and 92, Ladder 91, Light Rescues 91 and 92, Command 90; Village of New Middletown Engine 62; and Springfield Township Engine 21 and Light Rescue 21.