3 Lessons from a Major Gas Explosion

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Once-in-a-career incident exposed areas for improving large-scale incidents response

You know how you are always told never to let your guard down in this business? Durham, N.C. did just that and had a routine call turn into a hazmat, MCI, structural collapse incident in the blink of an eye.

Two Durham chiefs, Andy Sannipoli and Dan Cremeans, recounted the April 10, 2019 explosion and the lessons they learned at this month’s International Association of Fire Chief’s Fire Rescue International conference.

The explosion in a commercial building killed one, injured at least 25 including one firefighter, and damaged 18 buildings.

The day began like many others with two notable exceptions. First, the department’s hazmat team members were out of service for their annual physicals. Second, the USAR group was on the south side of the city doing training exercises at an acquired structure.

The city was ramping up its Internet access and had several subcontractors installing underground fiber-optic cable throughout the city. These contractors routinely hit gas lines. There could be upwards of seven calls per day for natural gas odor due to one of these strikes. Each time, fire crews stayed on scene until the utility company sealed off the leaking gas line. Each time they cleared the incident having had to do little more than babysit the situation until it was resolved without damage or injury.

This time when crews checked businesses with gas meters, they were immediately hit with dangerously high explosive levels. They called for additional help and stretched lines. Firefighters evacuated all the buildings except one where the business owner refused to leave. As firefighters were waiting for police to help convince that owner to vacate, the building blew up.

In addition to the debris, the explosion sent massive amounts of asbestos into the air. And the gas leak fueled the fire until it could be sealed. Along with many other agencies and local departments, a regional hazmat team was sent to the scene.

Due in part to the fatality, Durham Fire conducted an extensive after-action review and identified several areas where it can better prepare for future large-scale incidents.

  1. Command and control and accountability were lacking. More credentialed incident management team members would have freed up responders and made the operation run more smoothly. They struggled to corral all those coming in and get them moving in the right direction. This was especially true for those who were not first responders, such as public works that brought heavy equipment to pick through the collapse.
  2. Resource management was unorganized. Much like the command and control issue, incident commanders at times did not know who or what was available or where they were. The regional hazmat team had no staging area, despite one officer being instructed to set one up. Off duty firefighters were showing up at different stations and donning whatever PPE they could find, making identifying them more difficult than need be. And something as simple as routine physicals left the hazmat team out of service. Have a contingency plan if your entire team will be unavailable.
  3. Patient triage and tracking was slow to get running. They established early that only one firefighter was injured, but found it difficult getting accurate information from the hospital to rule out people who may be trapped in the collapsed building. At one point, they used dogs to check for survivors before making the decision that it was not worth risking firefighters without reason to believe someone was in there. Accurately tracking the wounded from the start would have eliminated this. Likewise, they had some difficulty initially tracking which firefighter were exposed to the scene for long-term health monitoring given the asbestos release.
City of Durham Official Video – full playlist can be found at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLLeX6M8cvLwPk-Vsdaydz0ZiACovsu1fl

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