Rapid Response: Every department needs mutual aid agreements and communications interoperability

50 simultaneous gas explosions and fires in three Massachusetts communities drives home the need for interoperable radios and automatic aid


As the east coast braced for Hurricane Florence, a tsunami of gas fires erupted in Massachusetts. In what is being described as a possible gas over-pressure problem, multiple fires and explosions occurred in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence Massachusetts. In a tragically rare set of circumstances in Lawrence, an 18-year-old was killed when a chimney collapsed onto the car he was inside, in his driveway. 

“It looked like Armageddon, it really did,” Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said in a September 14 press conference

Neighbors reported feeling like their neighborhoods were being bombed, as one house after another exploded around them.

Multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities arrive Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Phil Marcelo)
Multiple fire trucks from surrounding communities arrive Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Mass., responding to a series of gas explosions and fires triggered by a problem with a gas line that feeds homes in several communities north of Boston. (AP Photo/Phil Marcelo)

What happened: Concurrent 10 alarm responses

Thursday at 5:01 p.m., Andover Fire Rescue struck a 10-alarm response, its maximum fire response, directing 20 fire engines and 10 fire ladder trucks to the Town of Andover plus the town’s entire fire department. A lot of those resources were already responding to concurrent 10-alarm situations in Lawrence and North Andover.

Chief Michael Mansfield requested through MEMA, two additional fire task forces to respond to Andover. This sent an additional 20 engines and ladder trucks total to Andover. Chief Mansfield also requested an ambulance task force, sending 10 ambulances to Andover.

A total of 38 active fires in Andover were put out during today’s emergency, with 18 fires burning simultaneously at the peak of the incident. Firefighters also responded to 17 gas leaks. Two Andover firefighters and one civilian were injured. Listening to the radio traffic provides some insight to the chaos which followed the wave of destruction. Committing units from fire to fire, command dealt with upwards of 50 fires, at least 18 of them simultaneously.

Officials used every medium available to order evacuations in the three towns. In a rare public directive, officials told residents to turn off their gas service, if they knew how.

Mutual aid response arrived from Boston, over 30 miles away, as well as all of the surrounding towns. As automatic aide policies were exhausted, requests were made through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, to provide significant assets for the firefight. This incident drives home the need for interoperable radio and communication systems and automatic mutual aid policies.

Command sent available units from fire to fire in a frenzy rarely heard in urban fire environments. Firefighters were kept busy throughout the night and will likely stay busy through today with overhaul, power restoration and investigation. 

Top takeaways on gas explosion

Here are my initial takeaways in the early hours after this significant incident.

1. Be ready for anything.

Other than the emergent preparations for Hurricane Florence, this day started like any other. While it’s one thing to ramp up for a single standard structure fire response, it’s quite different when that response turns into 50 or more structures in disparate neighborhoods burning, many of them simultaneously. Make sure you train, not only for the everyday incidents, but also for the unknown, the extraordinary.

2. Review and update mutual aid agreements

Make sure you routinely review and update mutual aid agreements. If agreements don’t exist, let’s get about the business of getting them in place. A well thought out and vetted plan is always better than no plan.

3. Communication interoperability with mutual aid partners

We cannot effectively fight this type of roving firefight without interoperable radio systems. The spin-up of mobile interoperability systems is adequate for extended incidents, like wildland fire deployments that will last for weeks or months, but these explosive events require immediate interoperability. Is your system prepared?

4. Work smart with intent and focus

So far, there’s only one fatality. We all know how volatile natural gas mishaps can be.  Take one step at a time, one house at a time, working with the authorities having jurisdiction to clear neighborhood after neighborhood. We need to stay smart, so we can stay safe and send everyone home.

5. Practice multiple fire triage skills

This scenario provides the opportunity to practice your mass or multiple fire triage and suppression skills. Much like the SMART or SALT triage we use for mass casualty incidents, practicing the OODA loop concepts provide the foundation for multiple fire triage.

  • Observe.
  • Orient.
  • Decide.
  • Act.

What’s happens next

Firefighters will likely continue canvassing neighborhoods and fielding hundreds of “gas smell” or “weird odor” calls for days. For a period of time, this phenomenon will likely spread well beyond Massachusetts, as social media carries the event around the globe. Much like the 2001 anthrax scares, once there was a heightened awareness, everything everywhere looked, or in this case will smell, like a threat. Firefighters need to keep a heightened awareness and treat every situation seriously, no matter the volume

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