"I Suddenly Felt Myself Levitate and I Was Flying Through the Air" The Shawnee Township, OH, Fire Department covers 25 square miles and a population of 14,000. The department responds with three engines, one tanker, one ladder, two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, a hazmat trailer...
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When I got up on my knees and looked back, we heard the gas ignite and blow out at us, and now the front half of building was gone. What went through our minds was to get around to see the rest of our crew. After rounding the B/C corner of the building and seeing all the crew was OK, I noted everything almost seemed peaceful - traffic on roadways had stopped, papers rained down and, quite frankly, we thought the owner of the building wasn't going to be very happy.
We now went to work addressing the fire and called for evacuation of the supermarket and the bank near the explosion. The Dominion representative and the contractors were transported to a local hospital with cuts and burns. Captain Myers and I were taken to a hospital about 20 minutes after explosion by our medic to be treated for injuries, once we had enough resources on the scene. We had to have shrapnel removed from us along with minor burns and one broken toe. It was estimated that Captain Myers and I were blown through the air about 25-30 feet.
I believe our training and experience played a major role in how things went that day. You can do everything right and things still can go wrong. I believe if we didn't have all our gear on properly and if we weren't on air, I don't think he and I would be here to talk about a close call - we would be a NIOSH statistic.
The cause of the leak was the boring machine that had diverted off course and tore a hole in a two-inch medium-pressure gas line at 57 psi. The Lima and American Township fire departments heard the Mayday and were responding before they were called, and that meant to a great deal to us.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writer and with FDNY Battalion Chief Frank Montagna, respected author of the book Responding to Routine Emergencies, regarding this close call:
With a few years behind both Chief Montagna and I studying close calls and, tragically, line-of-duty deaths (several related to gas leaks), I have developed a deep respect for what gas can do - and what we need to do in order to minimize our risks when responding to related emergencies.
The first issue that stood out to me in this close call is once again, the staffing and response issue. As we have written in this column many times before, firefighting and related emergency responses are task oriented - and our ability to perform the tasks required and to do them nearly simultaneously is directly related to the staffing required. Simply put, no fire department can respond to an emergency, that requires, for example, 20 firefighters (as planned for ahead of time by pre-planning and developing alarm assignments) with half that many firefighters and realistically expect the job to get done successfully and safely in the required time.
Calls for "odor of gas," "gas leak," "broken gas line" and similar situations may range from minor to potentially major incidents. All of these must be handled as potentially dangerous situations as done in this case. Fire department personnel must evacuate any civilians in the area of escaping gas - and that was a challenge in this close call because of the amount of firefighters on the first alarm. Additionally, law enforcement also must send a "heavy" response so that the policing of civilians getting near the area is handled. Police officers are more apt to make the point to stay out of the hazard zone to those who should not be there than firefighters, who are better utilized as firefighters.
Firefighters working near a gas leak must wear full protective clothing with self-contained breathing apparatus, and that was done in this case by the captain and platoon chief. Firefighters operating in a suspected ignitable atmosphere (i.e., attempting to shut off a gas line) should be covered by a staffed protective hoseline. The number of exposed members must be kept to an absolute minimum at all times if command determines the risk is worth taking. Depending on conditions and resources on scene, the fire department may decide to evacuate the area, restrict access and await the gas company response, hazmat team or applicable responders.