Gas Leak & Explosion!

"I Suddenly Felt Myself Levitate and I Was Flying Through the Air" 

"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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  1. Secure the area, expect the worst - and act like it. Keep the public (and firefighters) at a safe distance.
  2. Shut down all sources of ignition that you can safely shut (backhoes, lighting, electric tools, etc.). For example, if the building has a emergency generator or emergency lighting, shutting down the power to the building may activate the generator or lighting. If a backhoe is near the leak, it is too dangerous to send someone to shut it down. Think about and research what the reaction of your actions may be.
  3. Hook up to a hydrant at a secure location and stretch a charged precautionary line to a safe area with enough line to cover exposed buildings.
  4. Handlines and large-caliber streams with fog nozzles may be used to direct escaping gas away from exposed structures.
  5. If the leak ignites, set up handlines and large-caliber streams to protect exposed structures. Extinguishing the leaking gas fire likely will result in re-ignition at the site of the leak.
  6. Position apparatus and firefighters upwind, out of the path of escaping gas.
  7. If possible, do not let water flow into the excavation.
  8. Using a gas meter, check surrounding structures for any migration of gas. A gas line accidentally damaged may not only leak gas at the site of the damage, but may have been pulled out of the building or even out of the gas main in the street. As a result, gas could be leaking remote from the rupture. This greatly increases the danger area and the likelihood of gas migrating into a nearby structure. Evacuate if necessary. Determine well before a run whether the gas detector carried by your fire department detects natural gas and whether it can indicate the degree of hazard present. You may need the response of a special company or hazmat unit for use of its digital gas detectors. On-scene utility personnel should have a digital gas detector and can assist with a hazard assessment. Check the sewer systems and any other manholes near and around the leak. Gas can migrate long distances in a sewer system and enter buildings remote from the leak.
  9. Do not attempt to stop the flow of gas from plastic gas lines. Gas flowing through plastic pipe creates static electricity, which can collect on the exterior of a broken gas pipe. Touching or coming near the pipe can result in a static discharge, causing ignition of the leaking gas.
  10. Do not extinguish burning gas outdoors; let it burn. An extinguished outdoor gas fire can re-ignite due to fuel and heat that still exists. Additionally, the still-leaking gas will form a combustible vapor cloud that may threaten exposures or personnel. The best and safest way to extinguish burning gas is to stop the gas feeding the fire. If a gas valve is shut during an investigation and it was determined that it had no impact on the leak, do not reopen the valve. Unlike water or electricity, integrity tests must be performed on the piping before it can be re-opened. Also, any pilot lights that were turned off due to the valve closing will have to be re-lighted; otherwise, there will be blowing gas at these locations.

The incident commander should consider the following questions when sizing-up these incidents and deciding whether to evacuate a building or area:

  • What can go wrong?
  • Where is the leaking gas going?
  • Where is the gas collecting? Is the gas approaching the explosive range?
  • What problems and hazards will be present if the gas ignites?
  • Are firefighters, civilians and apparatus in a safe location?
  • What additional resources, information and equipment are needed to safely control and mitigate the situation?

Often, answers to these questions can be obtained from utility representatives on the scene and they must be at or in communications with the incident commander.

Fire service history demonstrates the danger of gas leaks to firefighters. Firefighters have been critically injured and killed operating at such emergencies. Fortunately, the members of the Shawnee Township Fire Department survived this incident and are willing to share what they learned. The best thing we can do is to learn from them, evaluate our own operations and make changes as required so that we do not repeat history.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-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 Goldfeder may be contacted at