Report on NC gas explosion recommends hiring more FFs

The Durham Fire Department had requested 75 more firefighters prior to the explosion that killed two and injured 25

Virginia Bridges
The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

A recent report on the Durham Fire Department’s response to the April 10 gas explosion downtown could bolster the department’s request for 75 more firefighters.

The Fire Department has about 385 people who fight fires. Having more would improve response times and on-scene efficiency, reducing injuries and property loss, according to a presentation the department gave the city in March, about a month before the explosion.

Firefighters work to extinguish flames created by a gas explosion in downtown Durham, N.C. The blast killed two and injured 25, including nine firefighters, on April 10, 2019.
Firefighters work to extinguish flames created by a gas explosion in downtown Durham, N.C. The blast killed two and injured 25, including nine firefighters, on April 10, 2019. (Photo/Drew Jackson, Raleigh News & Observer, TNS)

The City Council approved an initial three new positions at a cost of $248,011. A six-year plan to hire all 75 firefighters would cost $4.8 million.

“I am very interested in seeing their request come back to us, and I am sure we will look at it favorably,” Mayor Steve Schewel said in an interview Monday.

The eight-page report released last week examined the Fire Department’s response to the explosion, which occurred after a contractor laying fiber on North Duke Street hit a gas line.

One person died immediately, one died later and 25 were injured. Eighteen buildings housing 23 businesses sustained more than $100 million worth of property damage.

Ninety-seven firefighters responded to the explosion. Nine firefighters were injured.

“I truly think we did a really good job the day of the explosion and the subsequent days,” Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said. “There are clearly some ways that we can do better. And that is why we engaged in this operational tactical look at this department.”

After seeing the Fire Department’s response in person and reading the report, Schewel said he remains impressed and grateful.

“I don’t have any concerns,” he said. “I thought they did an amazing job.”

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Increase staffing by 75 firefighters over five years.

Eighteen of the Fire Department’s 24 engine companies responded, but only four had the recommended staffing of four employees, the report states.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends a minimum of four people on engine companies to effectively fight fires and perform related tasks that include establishing a water supply, starting the initial fire attack, ventilating a building and other actions.

In a comparison with 11 nearby cities or cities about Durham’s size, only two — Greensboro and Richmond, Virginia — staffed all their companies — engines or a ladder trucks — with four firefighters.

“I think all cities are struggling with that standard,” Zoldos said.

  • Adjust staffing

The report indicated that on the day of the explosion, the department’s primary hazardous material station only had three personnel assigned to it, and some of those individuals were getting department physicals.

To address the issue, the department plans to increase minimum staffing of that station from three to five by the end of the year.

  • Increase use of personal protective equipment

A number of Fire Department personnel at the explosion scene were not using the appropriate protective equipment, the report said.

Zoldos said he knew of at least two firefighters who weren’t dressed in complete gear.

Drivers of fire trucks typically aren’t wearing full gear such as protective hats and breathing apparatuses because their job is typically going to be out on the street while others are inside a building fighting the fire, Zoldos said.

The gas explosion scene, however, involved the street and created a situation where people who are typically in a support role ended up in the hot zone in the immediate hours after the explosion.

“We want to make sure we design procedures and enforce that you have to wear the gear at all times,” Zoldos said.

The gas explosion was particularly concerning due to the presence of asbestos at the site.

Asbestos exposure can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare aggressive cancer. But the risk is low for those who experience short-term exposure, and the N.C. Division of Public Health reported that first responders and others who may have been exposed to asbestos fibers during the gas explosion are at minimal risk.

After the explosion, the department collected information on firefighters’ exposure and provided immediate treatment and continued monitoring, Zoldos said.

  • Directing off-duty employees

On the day of the explosion about two dozen Fire Department employees spontaneously responded to the scene.

Some stopped at a nearby fire station and borrowed gear.

“It is a wonderful problem to have,” Zoldos said, but the practice can make it hard to identify people if something happens and they are wearing borrowed gear with other people’s names on it.

The report recommends instructing employees to respond to their assigned station and wait there until they are told to report to the scene.

The report also recommends improving coordination among responding agencies, improving tracking and sharing information about the affected neighborhood, and increasing training to focus on less frequent, but high-impact events, such as the gas explosion.


©2019 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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