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Plan says emergency responders should decide on evacuations

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 3:01 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, at 5:50 p.m.


A footnote in the city’s emergency response plan

“The term ‘worst probable’ means the worst possible condition that is likely to happen, in the judgment of an experienced public safety official. It may exclude the worst possible condition, if that is judged unlikely to occur.”

Kansas City’s emergency response plan says public safety officials — not workers for private companies — should decide if threats such as gas leaks warrant evacuations.

The plan, first adopted in 2006, empowers “incident commanders” from the fire or police departments to make the evacuation call during routine emergencies, including “minor threats from explosions.”

Private workers aren’t mentioned. But the protocol instructs incident commanders to consider a “worst probable scenario” when making the decision.

Such a scenario struck Tuesday.

Answering to 911 calls of a strong natural gas odor, first-responding Kansas City firefighters followed the lead of a Missouri Gas Energy worker and did not initiate an evacuation of JJ’s restaurant or nearby homes and businesses.

An hour after those calls, the restaurant near the Country Club Plaza exploded, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen others.

Accounts by the city and the utility indicate MGE did ask people to leave in the moments before the explosion — but well after the odor of natural gas filled the restaurant and wine bar.

Indeed, Tuesday’s deadly explosion has raised questions about whether an evacuation could reasonably have been ordered earlier.

In 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board — after investigating a fatal gas explosion in Bergenfield, N.J. — said emergency responders should “rapidly assess” gas leaks to determine if “prompt evacuations are warranted.”

The Bergenfield Fire Department’s failure to evacuate contributed in the deaths of three people in the apartment where the explosion took place, the agency found.

The NTSB also said Bergenfield should adopt a written response plan for natural gas incidents and told New Jersey it should require recurrent training for dealing with natural gas accidents.

An investigation into the Kansas City explosion continues. Initial reports suggest an underground gas line was damaged by a work crew, leading to the leak and subsequent blast.

Fire officials and Mayor Sly James have defended the department’s response, pointing out the numerous gas leaks that don’t require evacuations or result in disastrous explosions.

Gas company workers, they say, have more experience assessing gas leaks.

“If there was a strong odor, we have to leave that up to the experts at the scene,” Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said last week.

James said the department “doesn’t do gas.”

But Kansas City Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, says those views may need new scrutiny.

“Clearly, we need to look at our formal evacuation procedures,” Sharp said.

James said Friday that he is willing to re-examine the city’s evacuation protocol.

“If it turns out that something should be tweaked or done differently, that will certainly be something we will take a look at,” the mayor said. “But I’m not looking for somebody to blame. … I’m not coming in with a preordained conclusion that somebody screwed up.”

Kansas City’s evacuation plan is contained in a 90-page public document.

It was first approved in 2006 after evacuation problems in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina forced most cities to re-evaluate their emergency response procedures.

The plan is hardly a set of rules that every firefighter could be expected to recite. And, like similar plans, it gives public responders significant flexibility in determining if and when to order an evacuation.

That flexibility is critical because not every gas leak or minor emergency requires widespread evacuation. Although the blueprint does not explicitly require it, in practice, consultation with private workers and other experts at the scene is a common part of that calculation.

At the same time, the document aims to give leadership guidance for a familiar routine that emergency crews can follow when they’re dispatched to potentially disastrous situations.

It is not illegal for private workers to recommend evacuation at an emergency. Indeed, the plan notes that the city has no “mandatory” evacuation powers, even for use by public safety agencies.

“While the city may issue an evacuation ‘order,’ citizens must comply voluntarily,” it says.

The document establishes a command structure for ordering evacuations during major natural and man-made disasters, a framework that includes the mayor, the city manager and public safety personnel.

But it also addresses what it calls “minor/routine evacuation operations” during fires, police operations and “minor threats from explosion.”

In those cases, “incident commanders” from the fire department or police department are supposed to make the call.

“The field IC will determine the scope of … evacuation operations based on the nature of the threat,” the plan says. “But of sufficient size and duration to prevent public injury under a ‘worst probable’ scenario.”

Department spokesman James Garrett said Friday that the fire service didn’t name an incident commander who could order an evacuation because there was no “incident” until the gas exploded.

“Before the explosion, we did not have command,” he said.

Sharp, a former director of the city’s ambulance service, called that a problem.

“We need to give authority to the first arriving public safety personnel to order an evacuation,” he said. “Before command staff even gets on the scene.”

Garrett said the department also follows command guidelines contained in the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, a federally produced document.

“It’s pretty set in stone,” he said.

The NIMS plan doesn’t explicitly define when an incident starts. It does say the command function “must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations.”

Kansas City’s evacuation plan is also silent on when emergency responders should first assume full responsibility for a disaster response.

The problem of deciding who orders evacuations — and when — isn’t new.

In the landmark 2005 New Jersey case, the NTSB ultimately concluded the local fire department “relied heavily” on the private gas utility when deciding if the apartment complex needed to be evacuated.

That was a mistake, the agency said.

“Contributing to the casualties in the accident was the failure of the Bergenfield Fire Department to evacuate the apartment building despite the strong evidence of a natural gas leak,” the board ruled.

The board’s recommendations, issued in 2007, included a request that the International Association of Fire Chiefs notify its members of the New Jersey explosion “and urge them to establish and implement procedures for emergency responders to rapidly assess situations involving natural gas leaks.”

An NTSB spokesman did not immediately respond to a request to further explain the recommendation.

Ann Davison, a spokeswoman for the fire chiefs group, said the New Jersey recommendations were sent to member fire chiefs in a May 2009 newsletter. Former Kansas City fire chief Smokey Dyer once served as the IAFC’s president.

Garrett said he didn’t know if the department received the notice. But he said Kansas City firefighters are trained on how to respond to natural gas leaks.

He also said the department responds to dozens of gas leaks each year. Ordering evacuations in every case, he said, would be impractical.

Experts with the fire chiefs association could not be reached for comment. Instructional videos and websites, though, say evacuation should typically be the first step when responding to a gas leak.

Sharp suggested the Fire Department consider outfitting every fire truck with gas “sniffers.” While some Kansas City fire trucks carry the natural gas detectors, the first fire truck responding to Tuesday’s leak did not.

On Friday, several combustible gas detectors were available online for $100 to $200 each.

Sharp said: “We need to closely examine whether the city should spend the very small amount of money it would take to stock each fire truck with gas detection devices.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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