Morgantown, WV: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, FACE F2009-13, 2010 Feb; :1-23
On May 7, 2009, two captains, a lieutenant, and five fire fighters were injured during a natural gas explosion at a strip mall in Maryland. At 1254 hours, dispatch reported a natural gas leak inside a business at a strip mall. Five minutes later, the initial responding crew and the incident commander (IC) arrived on scene to find a gas company employee looking for an underground gas leak. Approximately 6 minutes later, a natural gas leak was found near the exterior rear corner of the structure. After 23 minutes on scene, approximately 45 civilians were evacuated from 7 occupied businesses. A captain exited the rear door of the business that had called in the natural gas leak and noticed fire along the roof line. Crews in the front and rear of the structure had begun to pull hoselines as another captain was looking out the rear doorway of a middle unoccupied business and noticed the electric meter located on the exterior wall on fire. Anticipating an explosion, he tried to leap out the rear doorway. At the same time, a fire fighter had entered the front door of the unoccupied business, noticed the heavy smell of natural gas, and felt air rush by as the structure exploded. Debris and fire blew out the front, rear, and roof of the structure. The captain who tried to leap out the rear doorway was blown into the rear parking lot and the fire fighter who had entered the front of the structure was blown out the front door and covered with debris. Numerous other fire fighters, primarily near the front of the structure were blown off their feet and hit with debris. An uninjured captain issued a Mayday, followed by the IC ordering evacuation tones and a personnel accountability report. Crews began to look for the captain who was blown out the rear doorway. He had walked around the side to the front of the structure, and radioed his location to command. Fire fighters began moving injured personnel to ambulances staged in the front parking lot. Eight fire fighters and a gas company employee were transported to local hospitals. The injuries ranged from third degree burns to an ankle sprain. Key contributing factors identified in this investigation included: insufficient execution of the fire department's updated standard operating guidelines (SOGs) on incidents involving flammable gas, e.g., apparatus and fire fighters operating in a flammable area (hot zone); the accumulation of natural gas in the structure's void spaces; unmitigated ignition source; insufficient combustible gas monitoring equipment usage and training; and, ineffective ventilation techniques. NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should: 1. ensure that standard operating guidelines for natural gas leaks are understood and followed; 2. contact utility companies (natural gas and electric) immediately to cut external supply/power to structures when gas leaks are suspected; 3. ensure gas monitoring equipment is adequately maintained and fire fighters are routinely trained on proper use; 4. ensure ventilation techniques are conducted after ignition sources are mitigated; 5. ensure that rapid intervention teams are staged at the onset of an incident; 6. ensure that collapse/explosion control zones are established when dealing with a potential explosion hazard. Although there is no evidence that the following recommendations would have prevented these injuries, they are being provided as a reminder of good safety practices: 1. provide manual personal alert safety system (PASS) or tracking devices to locate potentially missing fire fighters when SCBA are not utilized; 2. ensure standard operating guidelines for communications are understood by dispatch; 3. ensure adequate staffing for emergency medical services and rapid intervention teams (RITs); 4. ensure training is evaluated for rank and skill levels across the combination department personnel.