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Propane Emergencies: Responding to Flammable Gas Incidents

As part of the education program that the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) are working on, we wanted to take time to review some basics of responding to flammable gas incidents at residential or commercial structures. These basic steps and processes should be utilized by departments of all sizes, from small rural to large metropolitan departments. Unfortunately, our profession is riddled with examples of emergency responses where some common basic safety tips have been missed or forgotten. As a result, missing safety steps caused an escalation of an incident that could have been avoided with some simple understanding of how to respond to these types of incidents properly.

The first critical aspect for any flammable gas response is to ensure that those who are going to respond to an incident have received proper training on how to mitigate the incident. This training can include the online training program that the IAFC and PERC will be offering or an in-person training session within your organization. Fire service members of all types and size departments who are part of an emergency response crew, need to know that gas-related incidents are a common part of the job. Every firefighter should recognize that portable gas monitors are the straightforward answer to gas emergencies and unknown odor responses.

One of the key aspects that needs to be covered during training is air monitoring by utilizing a gas monitor, which could be a single gas monitor or multi-gas monitor. Air monitoring is one of the most important aspects that responders need to understand. Every responder required to utilize a gas monitor must ensure they understand how to operate the monitor, the associated alarm limits and what they mean. Responders should not just wait for the monitor to beep and vibrate; they should fully understand what the readings mean, whether it is utilizing an LEL sensor or the displacement of oxygen. Understanding readings ensure that all responders have a basic understanding of what is occurring in the environment around them. When responders lose sight of what the readings mean and how the environment changes, they put themselves and others at risk. Furthermore, departments should also have an established standard operating procedure or guideline on operating and maintaining the gas monitor.

A second aspect that needs to be covered during this training is understanding how to approach a scene and stop the threat. When responding to an incident, a responder should always approach from the uphill, upwind side whenever possible. This allows for natural ventilation to keep the product away from responders. While approaching the area of concern, responders should always have a flammable gas meter and establish at what action level they should back out. This is accomplished through the development of an incident action plan.


NIOSH Pocket guide information

NIOSH Pocket guide information is a free source that can be referenced on scene to make informed decision based on the current situation and information, always use multiple sources when developing your action plan.


Source: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Note that the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) training content uses different descriptions for the terms then the Pocket Guide and emergency responder training material.


Responder and NIOSH Terms PERC Terms
Lower Explosive Limits LEL Lower Flammable Limits LFL
Upper Explosive Limits UEL Upper Flammable Limits UFL

Whenever possible, responders as part of their incident action plan should immediately isolate the threat by turning off a propane tank valve or natural gas valve if their department is properly trained. Do not attempt to control electric, operate light switches (on or off), or any other potential source of ignition within the structure. If electrical service is to be suspended it should be at the meter or pole.

As we continue to present information from the IAFC and PERC propane education program, we will continue to publish monthly articles that will help build and reinforce the foundation of responding to flammable gas incidents for first responders. The article for February will cover basic chemical and physical properties associated with propane, what they mean to responders, and cover more response considerations.

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