Editor's note: A 1995 accident in Polk County, FL, in which a car rammed into liquid propane tanks stored outside a convenience store led Fire Marshal Wesley W. Hayes Jr. to investigate why the hazardous material had been stockpiled only five feet from the store's only doorway. At the time, the...
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Editor's note: A 1995 accident in Polk County, FL, in which a car rammed into liquid propane tanks stored outside a convenience store led Fire Marshal Wesley W. Hayes Jr. to investigate why the hazardous material had been stockpiled only five feet from the store's only doorway. At the time, the relevant National Fire Protection Association standard, NFPA 58, permitted that practice. Hayes' subsequent attempt to submit a change in the standard led him to become involved in the Technical Committee on NFPA 58. On Jan. 14, 1998, he attended the NFPA Standards Council meeting in Key West, FL, on behalf of fire departments and NFPA Regional Fire Code Development Committees. The Standards Council upheld a motion that now requires liquid propane tanks to be stored at least 20 feet from the means of egress for such businesses.
Photo by Wesley W. Hayes Jr.
This car accidentally rammed a supply of liquid propane tanks and pushed them inside a convenience store.
The best learning comes not from what we read in books but from what we experience. An incident that occurred in my jurisdiction as fire marshal opened my eyes and led me to become involved in the setting of fire-protection standards.
In January 1995, a car found its way inside a convenience store in the area in which I am the fire marshal. The situation deteriorated in seconds.
The vehicle bulldozed 12 liquid propane (LP) tanks into the store, pinning five of the tanks to the floor under the cars frame. We had the usual concerns that any other fire department would have - propane leakage, electrical arcing, fuel leakage from the vehicle and firefighters being injured.
It took us four hours to resolve the situation by lifting the vehicle with airbags, then safely removing the tanks. The tanks sustained some damage but did not leak. As anyone who has who spent time in the fire service would do, we assumed the worst-case scenario until we could identify the exact problem. We treated the call as if the tanks would leak. Backup hoselines were put in place and extra personnel were called to the scene.
Here's where this story begins. Standing back and looking at the entire scenario, my eyes opened like the eyes of a newborn baby. What had been there, before the incident, were 12 LP tanks stored on the sidewalk right up against the front of the store. All that separated the store occupancy space from the tanks was an unrated plate-glass window. On display on the other side of the window were charcoal lighters, transmission fluid and oils.
The tanks had been stored five feet from the store's only means of egress. On the inside wall opposite the LP storage was an electrical outlet that supplied power to an ice-cream freezer. Two yellow posts protecting the LP tanks were buried three feet through the thin asphalt in the parking lot in front of an elevated eight-inch-high sidewalk. Typically, when customers pulled into the parking lot, they pointed their vehicles directly at the building with the rack of LP tanks being between the vehicles and the store.
In this incident, when the car struck the posts, they bent over, helping lift the front end of the vehicle so that it landed on top of the rack of LP tanks. The car continued into the structure with five of the tanks under it. A load-bearing column was struck and removed by the vehicle. LP tanks went flying through the air into the building, almost striking a customer. The customer worked with propane on a daily basis and found the nerve to shut off the car's engine on the vehicle as quickly as possible. Before the arrival of any authorities, an injured female driver was observed leaving the scene in haste.
After the incident, I met with fellow fire marshals. We pored over the relevant National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard, which is NFPA 58, Storage and Handling of Liquid Petroleum Gases, paying particular attention to the chart that related to the outside storage of propane. To our dismay, we found little that was helpful. According to NFPA 58, the tanks had been stored properly. NFPA 58 was written before convenience stores were handling LP tanks on their premises. All that the standard required was that the tanks be protected with good "engineering practice."