Rapid Response: Ind. blast highlights frequency of explosive events

Firefighters must remain vigilant at explosion response scenes, particularly when the blast source has yet to be identified

News broke Wednesday afternoon of a massive explosion in a residential neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana.

What happened

An astounding 39 homes were damaged by the blast, many of them substantially unsafe to enter, according to Evansville Fire Chief Mike Connelly.

An astounding 39 homes were damaged by the blast, many of them substantially unsafe to enter, according to Evansville Fire Chief Mike Connelly.
An astounding 39 homes were damaged by the blast, many of them substantially unsafe to enter, according to Evansville Fire Chief Mike Connelly. (Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press via AP)

As of this writing, three people have been confirmed dead, with the search ongoing to determine whether there are any additional casualties.

All the requisite investigatory agencies are (or will soon be) involved in the investigation, working to identify the cause of the blast.

The local gas company reports that the last time its representatives were called to this address was in 2018. But while the gas utility in on the scene, there is no confirmation at this time that this was a natural gas explosion.

Interestingly, the Associated Press reports that there was a similar explosion in this same area that killed two residents in 2017. In my 40-plus years of experience, two blasts in the same area just five years apart is unusual. No matter the cause here, this should be a huge wake-up call, not only for the fire department but also the public utilities and governments responsible for regulating and funding the gas transmission systems.

Why it’s important

Fire departments are routinely dispatched to the unknown, really the “all-hazards” part of what we do. While this is normal and expected, fire departments must remain vigilant, in a constant state of awareness while handling emergencies, whether it’s controlling intersections during response or conducting size-up as the first arriving at a reported explosion.

Natural gas systems: Even if natural gas is not deemed to be the cause of the Evansville blast, the mere fact that is being questioned is reason enough that fire departments across the country must be keenly aware of the natural gas transmission systems in their response areas. Fire departments must ensure that they are working with both the public and private utilities to conduct preplans and routine awareness-focused inspections of the facilities, to identify shutoffs and to collaborate for potential training opportunities. It is typically incumbent upon the fire department to seek out and establish this relationship and opportunities.

Possible causes: When responding to reported explosion-related events, fire department personnel, especially incident commanders, must ensure that they are considering all possibilities:

  • Natural/propane gas: Natural gas is lighter than air; propane is heavier than air. In these situations, there can be dynamic differences in response and operational posture.
  • Hazardous materials: Other hazardous materials have potentially explosive properties and should always be a consideration when approaching these unknown-cause events. Always have on hand the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG).
  • Home meth labs: Similar to “traditional” hazmat incidents, home meth labs have explosive tendencies. Meth labs have the added distinction of being illegal, potentially booby-trapped, and possibly protected by armed “attendants.”
  • Homemade explosive “tools”: Garages and homes are littered with many improvised or recovered explosive devices, many with non-nefarious purposes. Some examples include tool-by-design for a work-related function or homemade fireworks-related items. There is also the potential to come across homemade improvised explosive devices (IEDs.).
  • Terrorism: We’ve become more and more suspicious of the unknown after 9/11. From an awareness perspective, that increased suspiciousness is a good thing. Turning suspicious notions into actionable information and definitive safety improvements generally rests with law enforcement. But fire departments are certainly part of that process and should consider the possibility of terrorism during explosive responses.
  • Secondary explosive events: Secondary explosions are not merely terrorism considerations. Fire departments need to consider potential cascading effects (think damaged power grid/distribution systems, additional structural collapse) from initial explosive events. 

Other explosive events: Large explosive responses are not the “everyday” response, but they are probably more common than many of us believe. These types of blasts can occur anywhere. Here are a few fire department responses to similar explosive residential events:

Read more about explosive events that firefighters have faced over the years.

Situational awareness: Situational awareness is one of the primary keys to survival in explosive responses. It is all too easy for us to let our guard down and become numb to the everyday drumbeat of false alarms, trash/grass fires and non-emergent responses we see. We know well how quickly things can change. Starting with effective training and preplan programs, departments set the stage for recognizing the out-of-place and being ready for the unknown. 

What’s next

The first priority will be to complete a community accountability check. Based on the information coming out of Illinois, this clearly this won’t be a quick process.

As homes are stabilized and searched, the local utilities will be working to stabilize services in the community to allow reoccupation where safe.

The investigation will continue until the cause can be definitively determined.

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