NFPA Committees & The Fire Service

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."

Now that we fire marshals discovered that, in our opinion, NFPA 58 did not properly address the storage of portable LP tanks, I submitted a proposed change to the NFPA. My proposal, however, reached the NFPA too late to be placed on its agenda. What I did learn was that other fire departments were already working to have LP tanks moved farther away from a store's only means of egress. The NFPA 58 Technical Committee - of which only one member was a certified fire inspector - had received many letters and requests to consider such changes but rejected them on the grounds that such accidents were rare.

At the NFPA Fall Meeting in Kansas City, MO, I made a motion to accept a proposal to increase the distance for storing LP from a means of egress. The motion passed by five votes, overturning the rejection by the NFPA 58 Technical Committee. I thought that settled the matter but that was not the case - the Technical Committee appealed the motion and requested that it be reheard in Key West, FL, before the NFPA Standards Council. Prior to going to Kansas City, I found court documents in Duval County, FL (Jacksonville), showing that accidents at convenience stores were not rare at all, rebutting the reason the Technical Committee gave for rejecting the proposals. In fact, one person had testified that such accidents were occurring on the average of three to five times a week in Jacksonville, which had 300 such stores. One study that was accepted as evidence showed that of 196 stores, vehicles had struck 10%. One of those accidents killed a child and another injured a woman inside a store.

No one on the Technical Commit-tee, except the lone certified fire inspector, asked to see those records. All three subcommittees that provide guidance to the Technical Committee agreed that some action needed to be taken in regard to the storage of liquid propane. The Technical Committee, however, rejected any changes.

Whose Voices Are Heard?

My ignorance of the code-making process was embarrassing, to say the least. It surprised me that a committee could be so difficult to convince; that it would not even entertain the idea of change. The Technical Committee members whose voices were loudest were those representing liquid propane companies. Fire departments were not being heard but that was not the Technical Committee's fault; there is not enough participation in the NFPA committee process by fire departments.

Before this incident, I often wondered why codes seemed to be "screwed up"; now I knew. I am not saying that the NFPA Technical Committee did anything wrong. What I am saying is that some Technical Committees are not being adequately exposed to fire safety issues by the fire service. Whereas the NFPA Technical Commit-tee is extremely astute on propane, I believe that hearing from qualified and experienced fire department personnel who have dealt with propane incidents is important.

Lack of fire department participation in the code-making process needs to be rectified. Unlike private industry, fire departments do not have the budgets to participate fully. When you get a call from someone seeking your support of a change to the fire codes, give that person your undivided attention. And give your opinions - not always do we see the same thing the same way.

The NFPA is doing a wonderful job with the code-making process. Checks and balances are in place at every turn. Learn more about the Technical Committees and find out what their views are. Know who the participants are. Most important, attend the meetings when they are in your area and do not be afraid to speak up.

Attending the NFPA Standards Council meeting in Key West was educational. The Standards Council consists of people who listen intently to all sides, giving everyone a fair chance. I believe they heard me and considered everything I said.

I suggest, if you are interested, that you find out who is on your NFPA Regional Fire Code Development Committee. It may surprise you to learn how easy it is to work through them. Granted, some of the Technical Committees have more fire department members than others but that is all the more reason to support those individuals. Select a fire safety issue in which you are sincerely interested and become a positive force.

By the way, portable liquid pro-pane tanks are now to be located 20 feet from a building opening, not five. The Standards Council has directed that a special task force be put together to address this topic further.

Wesley W. Hayes Jr. is the fire marshal for the Polk County, FL, Fire Services Division.