The scene of a February 2011 natural gas explosion at 13th and Allen streets in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Five people were killed.
By James R. Kutz
Photos by Dennis Wetherhold
Natural gas leaks and explosions are growing problems across the country; aging infrastructure is one of the reasons for this growth. The Northeast region of the United States has the oldest infrastructure in the country. These gas pipelines have naturally degraded over a long time and desperately need to be replaced. In light of the current recession and crippled economy, it is unlikely this problem will be fixed in the near future. Even if the money were available, it likely would take many years to dig up and replace all the old gas lines across the nation. There are 2.5 million miles of pipelines nationwide; in Pennsylvania alone, there are 46,000 miles of natural gas pipelines, which would go around the circumference of the earth twice.
The city of Allentown, Pennsylvania, is no stranger to gas leaks and explosions. Allentown, 60 miles north of Philadelphia, is a third-class city with 118,000 residents and the third largest city in the commonwealth. It is in the center of the Lehigh Valley, home to more than 821,000 people. The Allentown Fire Department has six stations that include seven engine companies, two ladder companies, and a battalion chief.
I have worked for the Allentown Fire Department for 10 years and am assigned as the lieutenant of Engine Company 6. Previously, I was a volunteer at a neighboring township and worked part time for another combination fire department in the Lehigh Valley. As a volunteer and part-time paid firefighter, we responded frequently to gas odor calls; they generally were not taken very seriously and were considered to be nuisance calls.
When I was hired for the city in 2001, I immediately noticed a tremendous difference in the way gas calls were handled here. As a probationary firefighter, I wanted to know why. I started asking my instructors and some of the senior officers why we handled gas calls so differently from the way I saw them handled elsewhere. It seemed each of them had a personal story about a structure or multiple structures blowing up from natural gas. Each story they shared resulted either in complete destruction of the structure, someone being blown across the street, people dying, or even the deaths of two of our brother firefighters.
On August 8, 1976, in the 1100 block of Oak Street, a home exploded. When engine companies arrived, they found one house completely leveled and began to fight the resulting fire. While operating on the scene, the home across the street exploded, trapping two of our firefighters in the debris and resulting fire; Lt. John McGinley and Firefighter William Berger succumbed to their injuries. A memorial plaque for these brothers hangs by my office and is a constant reminder of the dangers we face every day specifically from gas-related disasters.
Between the years of 1925 and 1976, there were two significant gas explosions in Allentown that killed 10 people--including the two Allentown firefighters previously mentioned--and injured 24 other people. Since 1976, there have been nine gas explosions in Allentown, killing 10 people and injuring 110 more. In fact, the most recent explosion occurred while I was in the middle of writing this article.
Shortly after this explosion, my crew and I responded to a gas main that had been struck directly in front of a high-rise that housed the elderly and a daycare center. It clearly would have been a disaster if it had exploded. Our meters were detecting 50 percent of the lower explosive limit (LEL) standing across the street, and an odor of natural gas was apparent from blocks away. We safely evacuated the day care and moved 150 residents of the high-rise to the far side of the building.
Since graduating from the Allentown Fire Academy in 2001, I have responded to two gas explosions, both of which were significant and made national news. The first was on December 9, 2006; it left three homes leveled and a fourth house burning because of the large fire from the explosion. The second took place on February 9, 2011, resulting in the deaths of five civilians, six injuries, the evacuation of 500 people, the instant demolition of two houses from the blast, the destruction of six neighboring houses by a fire directly fed by the gas main that couldn't be shut off, and secondary damage to 47 nearby structures. During this incident, numerous pockets of gas-fed fire broke through the ground where the mains had been ruptured.
A photo of the Mohawk Street gas explosion in December 2006.
As horrible as these incidents are, I realize how fortunate I have been at the countless calls where natural gas readings were taken and were within the explosive range. Thankfully, none of those incidents resulted in an explosion after our arrival, resolutions I attribute to the quick response time of the fire department and the utility company, the serious treatment of every call, and the protocols and procedures in place that were precisely followed.
THE DANGER OF COMPLACENCY
I do not consider myself an expert on natural gas emergencies, but many of you may be like I once was--naïve and complacent in my approach to gas odor and gas leak calls. I'm compelled to share my experiences since the rest of the country will soon be where we are now. The problems our region is experiencing are the problems other areas will face; unfortunately, more people will probably die, be injured, and lose their homes in the process. I hope that more of us are prepared and preparing for how to respond to gas explosions and, more importantly, how to prevent a great deal more of them from occurring.
Allentown is relatively small compared to cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, but to put the growing risk from natural gas into perspective, in 2009 AFD responded to 12,206 calls of service: 76 of them were for gas odors, 68 were for leaks, 14 of them were significant enough that people had to be evacuated or the readings were in the explosive range. In 2010, we responded to 11,394 calls: 206 of them for gas odors, 44 for leaks, nine were significant. In 2011, there were 11,206 calls: 292 for gas odors, 125 for leaks, and 49 of them significant. This is an astounding 250 percent increase from 2009 to 2011, and a 444 percent increase in significant leaks just from 2010 to 2011.
If you were like I once was, unaware of or inexperienced with natural gas emergencies, would you know how to handle these incidents properly? The first thing is to have a proper attitude. Don't be complacent. I am more on edge on a gas call than just about any other type of incident. The second would be to read up on natural gas fires and emergencies. The third would be to contact your local gas utility company. Many of our standard operating procedures have come from the proactive training they offer us. The fourth would be to contact other fire departments in your region that have more experience with these types of incidents and see what they are doing.
AN EXAMPLE OF A STANDARD NATURAL GAS RESPONSE
I will share briefly some of the things our department does routinely on gas odor calls:
- When our 911 communication center receives a call for a gas odor or leak, inside or outside, it dispatches a full box, consisting of a battalion chief, one truck company, and three engines--bringing 13-15 members, depending on staffing that day. The dispatcher then notifies the utility company to respond.
- The first-arriving units shut off traffic flow by blocking all intersections and lanes of traffic to the entire square block surrounding the reported leak. This is to protect the apparatus and personnel, as well as civilians traveling on those roads from being in front of or near a potential explosion, or near a hydrant in case an explosion does occur. At a minimum, the apparatus should be clear of the collapse zone and far enough away so that it doesn't become an ignition source to any leaking gas. Also, be sure not to park over manhole covers because if the leak made its way into the sewer system and an explosion occurs, this manhole could damage the underside of the apparatus or injure the operator.
- Next, the responding firefighters walk to the reported incident in full turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), carrying natural gas meters and forcible entry tools, at a minimum. The meters we use as those used by the gas company, which calibrates them for us once a month to keep them in working order. These meters first read in percent-LEL; once the readings reach 100 percent LEL, they switch to percent gas in the air--the explosive range being 5 percent to 15 percent gas in the air.
- We approach on the same side of the street as the reported address. If an explosion occurs, you tend to be more protected if you are on the same side of the street, since the explosion normally pushes straight out, across the street.
- The firefighters begin taking samples as soon as they get off the apparatus, working their way toward the reported leak, trying to locate the source of the leak.
- While monitoring for gas, we give very specific directives to bystanders and occupants: We direct them to extinguish any possible ignition sources such as cigarettes, running cars, an appliance that has an open flame, or anything capable of producing enough heat to ignite natural gas. We also direct them not to touch anything such as light switches, plastic supply pipe or door bells. Sometimes, we even ask them to put their hands in their pockets to keep them from forgetting. For ourselves, we try to inhibit static electricity by not dragging our feet and using all intrinsically safe equipment.
- Readings are taken in and around the originating structure and exposures on either side of the structure, if they are attached. We also check both sides of the street to make sure the leaking gas doesn't follow water or sewer lines into the other homes.
- If we detect any natural gas with our meters, we continue to check and evacuate until we have two clean buildings. Our gas utility company asked us to do this because in the event of an explosion, it has the potential to take the two adjacent structures with it. I have seen this happen at both explosions to which I responded.
- Meanwhile, we evacuate the buildings and shut off the gas at the appliances, delivery meters, or curb shut-offs; our utility company allows us to accomplish this by supplying every company with a curb key.
- Finally, we secure the scene, ventilate if safe to do so, and wait for the arrival of the gas utility company to fix the problem.
Although I hope this article serves as a reminder or a wake-up call to some of you, it is also important to keep in mind that even though we may do our best to prevent occupants and ourselves from creating and extinguishing ignition sources, we can't control everything all at once. Don't forget to operate safely, don't become complacent, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best--and as my utility company instructor told me, "If you see the gas man running, RUN FASTER!"
This article is dedicated to Lt. John McGinley and Firefighter William Berger who died in the line of duty August 8, 1976, while operating at a gas explosion.
James Kutz is a 10-year career firefighter and lieutenant with city of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is assigned to Engine 6 at the Hibernia Fire Station. James is also a suppression instructor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and assists with the Allentown Fire Academy.