How does your Fire Department deal with natural gas incidents? These incidents can come in many forms such as: reports of odor, active leaks, breaks or cuts, or problems while utility companies are working on lines. There are thousands of reported gas emergencies each year in the US, most get mitigated without any problems, but there are many that result in injury and death to citizens, utility workers, and even firefighters. What do you do as a Fire Department for natural gas incidents? Are you even involved? If so what is your FD's role? Do you have a Unified Command with the gas company? Does your FD plug or clamp active leaks? Does your FD use meters to clear buildings and set hot zones? Does everyone involved (including the gas company) adhere to your hot zones? What is the gas company workers using for PPE? These are only a few questions that need to be answered and perhaps re-evaluate the working relationship with the local gas company. It's all about keeping the public safe and gas workers are the public. I will be talking natural gas emergencies at the NYS Hazardous Materials Seminar & Midwest Hazardous Materials Conference. I will also be putting content on this site and my social media outlets so check them out.
At 0542 crews were dispatched to a report of an ammonia odor at a local fertilizer plant in Buckeye AZ. First arriving crew, Buckeye E701, reported a strong smell of ammonia and balanced the call to a 1A Hazmat, bringing 3 more hazmat units in. Crews performed a recon of the fertilizer plant but could not see anything obvious. The representative from the fertilizer company said it may be an MC331 that is there and perhaps the valves were open. As I arrived crews from Buckeye E705 were just beginning to make a Level A entry and was briefed by the company on what to look for on the truck. The Entry crew found nothing open but checked other tanks in the area also finding nothing unusual, readings around the area were 2-4ppm. Our Command post was located west of the business and we would occasionally get some hints of ammonia. Our next plan was to send a 4 member crew in to shut down the anhydrous ammonia valve that feeds four large tanks because the RP’s thought, perhaps, one of the tanks is leaking or has a bad relief valve. I, along with three other Hazmat members from Phx SQ44, entered the plant with meters knowing we will move forward to the shut-down area as long as we don’t reach 30ppm (10% of IDLH). At the gate we got 24ppm and I thought we may not be able to get very far on this but as we moved forward the readings declined to 4-5ppm. We found the valve and turned it off. Once down range we also scanned the area for any possible leaks and were not able to find anything. After walking the plant twice, we exited and our meters were reading 0ppm. At the Command post as we were discussing what we did we were STILL getting hints of ammonia which made us (the FD) and the responsible party scratch our heads. I asked the supervisor what he would do and his only answer was he would send one of his guys in on a respirator to check ALL valve in all areas because he knows which ones could be causing problems. After conferring with all of our Command people we decided to allow that, and 3 members off of Peoria E193 and myself accompanied the worker inside to secure all valves. Moving through the plant we had 0 readings until we got to the area where they fill rail cars. He found two valves that were open that should not be. One of the members climbed the ladder to where the fill hose was but only got 1ppm just about 1′ away from the hose. We continued through the plant to check many other valves but none were open. We exited again and by now the wind had really kicked up from the east and we were now getting high readings outside the plant. On the other side of the street, in front of the business was a large rain puddle, my meter got as high as 78ppm of ammonia. We now focused on the puddle????? C957S moved around the puddle and was getting between 30-40ppm above the water on the west side of the puddle. We placed a pH stick in the puddle and it pH’d at a 12! Mystery solved except for how ammonia got into that body of water. The scene was turned over to Dept of Environmental Quality for further examine.
If you think about it, a First Responding Fire Unit really needs to be on their game. They are the units that could get first on-scene to a multitude of emergencies that may just frazzle and completely panic any normal person. Think about it, rolling into a scene where there are a multitude of critically injured people, a scene with a violent person that has a weapon or weapons, a raging fire in the middle of the night with people trapped, a building that has just been leveled by an explosion, earthquake, etc, an orange-ugly cloud of toxic gas floating down the street, a truck carrying hazardous materials that is on fire………all of which require fast thinking and quick decisive actions. How do we enable ourselves to do this? One word…..TRAINING! Obviously, being a Special Operations guy I like to push the Spec Ops stuff, but I do remember being that Engine Company Officer that had limited knowledge in certain areas and feeling a bit overwhelmed by attempting to learn a little more about the “low frequency, high risk” incidents. This video is a great example of what a First Responder can encounter and what type of decisions they have to make in a very short amount of time.
One thing I try not to do on my website or FB page is call people or departments out for their actions (or non-actions) but more-over create a discussion out of what we see to increase our knowledge of incidents we may have yet to encounter…….but certainly have the chance of seeing. So let’s first talk about what we see. This is a classic MC331 (may be named something else in this country, but non-the-less the same), pressurized tanker, either filled or not filled but to me…..I treat the same. If you know anything about these tankers they carry products that have been liquified, by pressure, so as to get more product in the tank, so they are high pressure (100psi – 500psi, 300 most common), have pressure relief valves to relieve any over-pressure, and are made of steel. If you know this…..does it change the way you think about your tactics? Have you heard of the Kingman incident? Same type of tank (although it was a rail tanker) and you may know the outcome of that. These tanks should scream BLEVE to any Company Officer……..However, there are some definite differences from Kingman and this one. Kingman had heavy flame impingement for a considerable amount of time and PRV’s screaming. Knowing that incident, does it change the way you approach this incident. What is not happening to this tank? No pressure relief valves going off………what does that mean? The product (liquid) could be dissipating the heat and it’s no where-near that BLEVE phase, giving time for extinguishment……but is it full or empty? Does this change the way you think about your tactics? I always say the quicker you get the problem solved the less hazard YOU MAY have to deal with later. Take the fire away and your problem is solved. That is very old-time thinking, and cost us some lives in the past but there were many times (I know for a fact after talking with members on my department for the past 30 years) that their quick actions, without injury or fatality to firefighters, actually made the difference and saved lives. Does this change the way you approach this incident? So I’m not going to defend or criticize the tactics of this 1st unit, but I will say they made a very gutsy move…..was it because they knew what they were doing or because they didn’t know? I think we all can agree it’s better to be lucky than good and how many times have you said, “wow I dodged a bullet on that one” (I’ve said that more times than I would care to mention!). Wow…there is a lot to consider in a very short time. Thus, much respect to Company Officers for being able and willing to accept those challenges! If I have heard this once, I have heard it a hundred time…..we don’t necessarily get paid for what we do, but we certainly get paid for what we MAY have to do……..so volunteer or paid, crazy busy or not so much, the key is training! Use your extra time to get that little extra training in areas that you may feel “a little less than comfortable” in.
How does your department handle natural gas emergencies? If you think about it, there are numerous scenarios that could happen such as:
I have seen ALL of these and, in my opinion, the fire department should be involved with each one! With the correct knowledge, initial and continued training, familiarization with the gas piping, regulating stations, meters etc, training with mitigation equipment, and a good relationship with the local natural gas provider the fire department has the ability to quickly mitigate a leak, or at the minimum keep the public safe and assist the local provider with quality protection. The ratio of gas provider technicians to homeowners with natural gas does not, generally, favor a quick response from the provider, however the fire department is usually there within 5-6 minutes. So what can we do as first responders? I will discuss this in a three-part series dealing with, first responder & hazmat companies duties, mitigation techniques & equipment, a look at past incidents that I have been involved in and incidents that have happened across the nation. PART 1 – RESPONSE TO NATURAL GAS INCIDENTS These incidents can come in all forms, from homeowners leaving their appliances on to large breaks, (6” to 10’ or greater) to underground migration leaks affecting wide areas and etc. Fire Departments may or may not respond to these and if they do there may be different alarm components for the many different type of incidents. The response model can be based on a few key things; a random complaint of odor outdoors, away from buildings, (not a lot of threat of pocketing or accumulating) would only require a small response. Is the odor inside a structure such as a house, multi-family resident (apartment, four-plex, etc.) or a business with people inside, and are the people being sickened? This may require a larger response for not only the fact of accumulation but also reports of people feeling ill that need medical attention (larger response). A construction break that is confirmed. This could mean large diameter pipe, power equipment involved, traffic in the area etc. This could require a larger response as well. In addition the local gas provider will respond to all of the above. For incidents inside structures, the first responding fire company needs to preform a recon so they can figure out what they have and what are the options. Entering a residence that has a report of natural gas needs to be done in full PPE to check for appliances that may have been left on, pilot lights that are out, BBQ propane cylinders or lines left on for example and while investigating can open windows and doors to facilitate ventilation. Generally the first company onscene does not carry any type of combustible gas indicator (CGI) which puts them at a bit of a disadvantage because they will not know if the area they are entering is in the flammable range. If you do have a CGI, metering the area will give you an idea of any flammable limit indications. If reading is zero, a stand down with the crew can be made and then perform a more detailed investigation. First responders can also go straight to the meter and shut off the gas and wait for the hazmat team to arrive to conduct monitoring and wait for the local gas provider. There are times when first-in companies want to not only shut off the gas meter but shut off the power as well. This is something we don’t generally do unless the hazmat unit decides it’s necessary ans then they meter the area prior to cutting the power. Shutting of the power can create a spark, which is exactly what we don’t want! Remember that because you don’t have readings does not mean gas is not present. With odorization of natural gas by using mercaptan, at 1part per billion (ppb) this chemical has very adequate warning property but may not register on the meters. So what about the leak that has happened when the homeowner wants to plant a tree and they hit a gas line with their shovel? What about the construction crew who severed a gas line with their backhoe? In the case of the homeowner, I have seen this where the line is broke close to the foundation and the gas is traveling up, hitting the eaves of the house, and traveling inside the house. I have seen backhoes completely cut lines while working in the street, parking lot etc. The incident may not seem too emergent because it’s in the street, the gas is lighter than air and it’s going away, however when a backhoe pulls a gas line and damages or severs it, the forces down the line may have pulled a coupling loose and thus causing a leak at a remote area. Case in point; backhoe pulls line and cuts. Appears not to be a big deal, equipment is off, it’s in the middle of the street and it’s a small hot zone because it’s hot outside and the gas is traveling up fast and going away. A hazmat tech drives a bar hole plunger in the ground at a building about 100 yards away and gets readings of 3% gas. The business is still operating and we were beginning to get readings (although smaller) inside the building. In some cases with complete breaks, we can utilize our gas mitigation kit to stop the leak either by clamp or plugging, however in this case it would not do any good. The severed pipe is a concern but our urgent concern is that there is a leak from the stress placed on the pipe and now we have an underground leak with migration and, it could virtually be going anywhere. What we can do as a fire department is; have all members in full PPE, evacuate, isolate, & deny entry, establish a water supply, stretch out and charge a handline, protect the people evacuating, and when the building is empty, back off until gas company arrives and work with them to mitigate. How do you check for migrating gas? Is it possible, and should we be concerned with it. A number of years ago we watched the local gas provider “pogo-ing” holes in the ground and sticking wands down the holes. That was their way to check if there was an underground leak with migrating gas. They would systematically work a pattern to check for underground leaks. The bad part of this is they may be doing this function in the hot zone and unprotected. So we teamed up with them, took some classes, had some meetings, looked at all of their cool tools, and decided that this is something we could do, not to take away part of their job but to assist them by starting the process so they can concentrate on securing the leak. We have placed, in our arsenal, clamps, plugs, natural gas specific meters, bar hole plungers, and miscellaneous tools. We have general rules on when we can clamp/plug and when we cannot. This quick mitigation, many times, has decreased the amount of gas collecting in an areas, shortened the time citizens have to stay evacuated, enhanced the gas providers response because of required time limits to secure leaks, along with a host of other reasons. In Part 2 I will discuss our relationship with the local gas provider along with procedures for each that we have both agreed upon, our parameters for mitigating gas leaks prior to the gas company arrival, and the tools we use for our natural gas emergencies. PART 2 – RESPONSE TO NATURAL GAS INCIDENTS Working with different agencies, just about always produce problems. Each feel they have their operating procedures in place in order to do a job, however the other agency may have some exception to that and it may turn into, for lack of a better term, “a pissing match”. This was evident years ago working with our local gas provider. To their defense, they had a job to do and they did it well, but did they do it safely? In our eyes it did not appear that way and thus the small tiff wars ensued to see who would win. There definitely was a need for some change though, because as a fire department, we are responsible for the welfare of ALL citizens no matter what the case may be. As I stated in part 1, we observed some things that were happening in our hot zone that, perhaps we should be a little more protected while doing and who was more protected than us? Checking for underground gas migration is one of them. When gas migrates through the ground or follows fissures, pipes, electrical line etc. it can easily be stripped of its mercaptan and have no odor to it at all. The only way to tell is to use a bar hole plunger, drive in about 18” – 24” and place a wand in the hole and check for readings. It’s probably not a good idea to do this unprotected especially not knowing exactly where you will discover gas. Our guys are already turned out and are use to being in bunker gear, even in our summers, and with a little bit of training can preform this task very well. Now can the gas company still do this? Sure, but have them start further out, and have our guys start further in. Now do we preform this on every gas leak? No, there are certain times that it is not necessary, but whenever we have a line that has been pulled, stressed, or severed by power equipment, we bar hole because it may have caused trauma to the line at another location. A mole operation, where an auger is drilling a hole underground for a long distance, and it has hit a gas line is a complete MUST for bar holing! Small leaks cut by shovels, leaks at meters, or generally anything above ground is usually not necessary to bar hole. We, generally have three types of gas piping in the city, PVC, steel with an outer jacket of PVC, and steel. So knowing those going in, we as a fire department, know what we can mitigate and what we cannot. We have several different types of mitigation tools that we can use when our hazmat team arrives and many times that saves time for the responding gas provider, puts evacuees back in place quicker, and places us back in service sooner. We carry 2 different types of clamps, one called a Footage clamp that is nearly 6’ tall where we can reach down into trenches and clamp a severed line. We also carry a Mustang clamp that is a small hand clamp for breaks that are easier to reach. We also carry a multitude of plugs in the form of expansion plugs in various sizes, wood plugs, and exterior wrap clamps. We have put policies in place that we both (gas provider & fire department) agree upon so we are all on the same page when arriving and working natural gas incidents. The first thing we needed the gas company to make their employees do is adhere to our hot zone area and if any of their employees need to enter the established hot zone they need to be in some sort of PPE (nomex jumpsuit, eye pro, hard hat) and we in turn make efforts using our meters to shrink the hot zone to a smaller more manageable area, including evacuating unnecessarily. There have been times in the past the first in company will evacuate very large areas, we now use the meters and underground readings to make a definite hot zone. The gas provider has also approved the fire department to mitigate leaks, if possible, with certain restrictions in place. We have basically two rules for our members on when we can secure a leak; 1) no digging. If we have to do any type of digging we leave that to the gas company. The reasoning behind this is there is a small risk when digging with shovels and sparks, we need to pay more attention to where the pipe is or running and we may get to aggressive and cause more harm and lastly, we need to protect whoever is digging with a hoseline and that is what we do best. Now, there have been times when we need to “move” dirt in order to get the clamp around or expose it better and that is a call for the company officer, which we have done on many occasions. 2) We do not clamp anything but complete breaks. The reason for this is if the line is just sliced or cut it’s hard to tell which direction the gas is flowing. Again, there have been many times were we have taken an educated guess and clamped one side. Sometimes we get it and other times we may have to reposition or put a second clamp on. The reason we had this was we did not want our members staying directly around the break for extended amount of time not knowing the direction the gas is flowing however, our members have gotten the clamping down to a very minimal time. If we cannot mitigate the leak on our own because the line is buried, the line is steel, or another issue we will secure a water supply, have a handline pulled and charged and wait for the gas provider. When their workers have to be around a broken line they need to be in the proper PPE, which is nomex jumpsuit with hood, supplied air (or SCBA), harness with tag line, and gloves. Our job is to provide the protection with the hoseline and rescue of the workers should something go wrong. We will put anywhere from 3-4 firefighters with the gas workers to maintain that safety portion. Once the leak is secured we continue to work with the gas company to meter areas until we have zero readings. This relationship has been going on for several years now and we continue to meet annually to discuss any problems, issues, new business and so forth. Our gas provider also has a great training facility where they have a site called “Leakerville”. This small town has every type of scenario to train new employees on every type of gas emergency that we could have and they allow us to use it for training our members and even provide instructors.