The gas main was fused to a water line as a result of an indirect lightning strike.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Lakeland FD
I want to share this communication I sent out to my department after one of our company officers experienced a fireground Mayday event. Our focused training continues to be the critical link in our firefighter survivability profile. We will continue to train, train, train!
Several Montgomery County Fire and Rescue (MCFRS) units responded mutual aid to Frederick County to a structure fire. During incident operations, a Mayday was declared because one of our Montgomery County personnel fell through the floor with one leg and was temporarily immobile and attempted to self rescue, but was unable to do so. The Montgomery County crew that was operating as a rapid intervention team immediately came to the rescue and held onto the trapped Montgomery County person. A Mayday was declared and the individual was successfully removed and unharmed. A thorough medical check proved no apparent injuries and the personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were rendered safe and serviceable by the on-duty MCFRS safety officer.
In my discussions with the crew that was at the scene, several items are clearly apparent.
1. Our recent training efforts with firefighter Maydays, rapid intervention team training, firefighter self rescue and our Mayday floor-collapse prop proved beneficial.
2. Crew integrity was critical because the personnel stayed together and were able to immediately react and come to the aid of the Mayday individual.
3. Our transition to the third-due engine being the rapid intervention team is a critical part of having a dedicated rapid intervention team early in the incident.
4. Our personal PPE specifications are sound and aid in protecting our personnel while engaged in the interior fire environment personnel are subjected to.
We will formally examine this incident and the Mayday and learn more from what occurred in an effort to reduce fireground risks and injuries to personnel. Please stay focused on the fundamentals, execute the basics and train, train, train!
Montgomery County, MD,
Fire and Rescue Service
Chief Bowers, a member of the Firehouse Editorial Advisory Board, was interviewed in the February issue.
When All the “Wrong”
Pieces Come Together
In the fire service, one can never tell what the next event will entail. Responders must be ready for myriad incidents – hazardous materials releases, structure fires, medical emergencies and specialized rescue operations. We train daily to prepare for these situations and hone our skills to make emergency scenes seem routine. We are more prepared than ever, surrounded by a world with information at our fingertips. Training involves placing all of the “right” things in motion. We all know the type of incident where “everything just falls into place” and the job is accomplished because all the right pieces come together.
But what happens when all the “wrong” pieces come together? This is an overview of a “routine” gas leak that occurred in the City of Lakeland in central Florida.
With a population of nearly 100,000, Lakeland is the largest city in Polk County. Fire service is provided by the Lakeland Fire Department, a city department composed of 149 personnel. The city is divided into two battalions with 43 line personnel per shift working a 24-hour day. Resources include seven engines, five rescues, two battalion chiefs, a heavy rescue, an aerial platform and an aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) unit. Lakeland Fire covers 80 square miles, running about 16,000 calls per service each year.
At 11:08 P.M. on Aug. 12, 2011, Engine 31 responded to a call for “smell of gas” in a home. A resident reported smelling “gas” when she operated her bathroom faucet. Prior to the incident, Lakeland experienced a late-night thunderstorm producing lightning, rain and 25-mph wind gusts. The officer from Engine 31 investigated the complaint and found highly pressurized water emitting from all household faucets. The water had a distinct smell of ethyl mercaptan, an odorant that is added to odorless fuels to warn of leaks or spills.
Engine 31 immediately requested Battalion Chief 2 (BC2) to respond with a combustible-gas instrument (CGI) to verify their suspicions. Upon entry with the CGI, the lower explosive alarms sounded immediately. The structure was evacuated as BC2 requested the Lakeland Water Department and TECO, the local gas utility. TECO arrived promptly and was briefed. The initial TECO representative was unaware of any reported breaches in the gas-distribution system and was in disbelief that methane could be in the municipal drinking water. Engine 31 attempted to open a nearby hydrant and immediately experienced difficulty as the water system was uncharacteristically charged with high pressure. Once the hydrant was opened, the CGI immediately alarmed when held near the flowing water. It was apparent that the municipal water supply was contaminated with pressurized natural gas from an unknown source. City of Lakeland Utilities assisted in searching for the cause of the contamination as the 911 center continued handling multiple calls for “smell of gas.”
A citizen approached fire units and reported a large raised area of asphalt in the roadway two blocks away. BC2 investigated and found an entire intersection raised approximately 10 feet. The area was free of standing or bubbling water that would have indicated a water line break; however, an obvious odor of ethyl mercaptan was found in the intersection. BC2 established command and immediately requested the response of Battalion Chief 1 (BC1), Engine 11, Rescue 32 and Rescue 62. The large “bubble” of roadway continued to grow, creeping laterally down the length of the street. Due to the geographic size of the event, East and West Divisions were established. Homes surrounding the leak site were evacuated by fire personnel.
TECO determined the leak was likely to be a four-inch line beneath the roadway. TECO’s response team met with command and determined that the appropriate action to take involved mechanically digging up the roadway and placing crimps in two locations as the gas could not be remotely isolated. This still left a huge question unanswered: How was leaking gas contaminating the municipal water supply?
Multiple “smell-of-gas” complaints came into the 911 center – and all the “wrong” pieces began to come together. A typical gas leak may require evacuation of the area directly surrounding the leak as the gas company repairs the broken line. The evacuation is usually isolated and brief, with a defined area identified. These are our “routine” calls, but this incident was anything but ordinary. The area involved could not be isolated or defined, as the entire municipal water system was likely tainted with gas. Removing electrical power to the area was considered as a means to prevent ignition sources in multiple homes with the potential for gas-related fires. It was ultimately decided that the power would remain on as citizens would likely light candles for light without power.
The County Emergency Management Team was used as a resource to inform the public about the event. A reverse 911 was initiated to the area instructing residents not to use faucets, toilets or other water devices and eliminate ignition sources. Shelter-in-place was used for residents outside the immediate area of the leak. The Utilities Department was instrumental in attempting to isolate the flow of water to and from the area. TECO response personnel requested fire protection during excavation efforts as the backhoe removed asphalt to reach the leak. Supply apparatus worked with the Utilities Department to find water outside the contaminated area. Hydrants were opened and checked with a CGI. The soil was removed, revealing two iron pipes intersecting at a 90-degree angle. Crimps were placed on both sides of the leak to stop the flow of gas.
A close inspection revealed that a lightning strike had fused the gas distribution line to the municipal water line lying above it. Minimal water leaked from the pipe as the pressure of the natural gas line exceeded the municipal water pressure, ultimately forcing the gas into the water system. Lakeland Utilities flushed the water system to eliminate any residual gas. The incident lasted just over five hours and affected 1,200 residents.
Many lessons were learned:
• The Incident Management System (IMS) was successfully used as multiple agencies were needed to assist with mitigation.
• Shelter-in-place versus evacuation is never an easy decision. Sheltering-in-place worked in this incident only due to the time of day. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office attempted to call residents with the reverse 911 message, but few of the numbers were valid as residents have moved or are using cell phones as opposed to using landlines.
• Typical municipal hydrants may be unusable for suppression due to contamination. Can you imagine flowing a fire stream infused with natural gas? Formulate contingency plans for water supply in case hydrants become unavailable.
• Notify the health department of potable water contamination.
• Expect the unexpected. Even the response experts could not believe the possibility of lightning fusing pipes together.
This is just an example of the “unusual” that responders must prepare for an event where all the “wrong” pieces come together.
Lakeland Fire Dept.
The writer has been a member of the Lakeland Fire Department for 14 years. He holds an associate’s degree in emergency medical management from Polk State College and is completing a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. He is a member of Florida Light Technical Rescue Team 421.
Proving the Value
of Fire-Based EMS
The CAL FIRE/Riverside County, CA, Fire Department recently successfully converted four individuals who were in full cardiac arrest. In one incident, Engine 27 responded to a man complaining of shortness of breath and “a weird feeling in both arms.” He became unconscious and his heart went into a dangerous V-Fib rhythm. Advanced life support (ALS) actions were initiated, resulting in a successful resuscitation. Engine 32 responded to a person in cardiac arrest. The patient was intubated, given an IV with medications and defibrillated several times. The patient regained pulse, blood pressure and some respirations.
Engine 70 responded to a woman in cardiac arrest at home. Her husband had begun CPR. She was resuscitated and arrived at the hospital with good vital signs. Engine 70 also responded to a man in cardiac arrest at a golf course. Bystander CPR using a facility-provided automated external defibrillator (AED) had provided two shocks prior to arrival. Firefighters used ALS procedures and the man arrived at the hospital with good vital signs.
These actions point out the importance of our fire-based paramedic or advanced life support and pre-arrival cardiac interventions by civilians. Fire paramedics initiated very effective treatment followed by rapid transport by AMR. As a result, four adults are alive to live another day. I am very proud of our fire personnel and their accomplishments. They perform near miracles every day. These examples are but four of what our firefighters do every day.
John R. Hawkins
Unit and County Fire Chief
CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Dept.