Department of Health and Human Services employees and Augusta firefighters wait during a search Sept. 19 for the origin of a reported gas leak at DHHS in Augusta. No leak was found. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

In the wake of an explosion that killed a Farmington firefighter and injured seven other people this month, central Maine firefighters are seeing an increase in gas-related calls, and are carefully reviewing how they approach such situations.

Capt. Michael Bell of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department was killed in the Sept. 16 explosion at the LEAP central office at 313 Farmington Falls Road. Six firefighters and LEAP’s maintenance supervisor were injured while responding to a reported propane smell at the building, which exploded shortly after the firefighters arrived. The investigation isn’t complete, but investigators said Friday that a leak in a propane line is to blame.

Jefferson Fire Chief Walter Morris said he knows other departments have seen an increase in gas-related calls, but his town has been somewhat  insulated because there is no natural gas pipeline there. He said the explosion in Farmington has made everyone more aware of potential gas-related emergencies.

“Everybody has a heightened awareness and I think they’re being more cautious,” Morris said. “They’re calling right away.”

Morris said he reviewed the department’s response policy with his crews after the Farmington explosion. He said Lincoln County fire departments are working with heating oil companies to put together a program for maintenance workers in schools or other large buildings on “what to do if they suspect a gas leak.”

Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens, whose department has provided station coverage for the Farmington department, said the explosion affected his crews “quite a bit.”

“It hits close to home,” he said. “These guys were our friends, so it’s been tough.”

Capitol police and Augusta firefighters walk around the Department of Health and Human Services building on Sept. 19 after the building evacuated because of a reported gas leak. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Owens told the Kennebec Journal last week that response procedures are designed to limit a firefighter’s exposure to gas. He said trucks should park a good distance from the suspected leak and only two to four people should be sent inside the building at a time.

The main goal, Owens said, is to isolate the source of the leak. After that, he said, firefighters use meters to determine if gas is in “the explosive range.”

“We don’t want to be in there because anything could set it off,” Owens said. “We call a full response. We don’t try to handle it ourselves.”

Brunswick Fire Chief Ken Brilliant said he hasn’t noticed an uptick in the number of gas-related calls  since the Farmington explosion. He did say, though, that the four calls he remembers over the last week concerned actual leaks. Each was minor and caused by human error – in one case, a contractor punctured a gas line with a nail; in another, a resident hit a propane tank with a lawnmower.
Brilliant said the incident in Farmington served as a reminder for firefighters all over the state that, even on routine calls, they need to be ready for anything and investigate accordingly.
Dave Nichols, spokesman for the Portland Fire Department, said calls for possible gas leaks are among the most common his department receives. He said he hasn’t noticed any increase in calls since the Farmington blast.

Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said he will not consider response policy changes until a full report on the Farmington explosion is complete. Any changes made before that would not be based on fact and much is still not known about the blast.

“All we know is there was a gas leak and there was an explosion,” he said. “Until those reports come out, I don’t see any big changes.”

Mount Vernon Fire Chief Dana Dunn said the Lake Region Mutual Aid group is “looking into more training” for gas- and propane-related calls.

Augusta Fire Department responded to reported propane odor on State Street on Sept. 19. Battalion Chief John Bennett said there was no leak, just the smell of gas leftover from filling tanks earlier in the day. Fire Chief Roger Audette declined to comment about the department’s protocols for responding to gas leaks.

Hallowell’s crews, along with personnel from Randolph, Manchester and Farmingdale, trained the day after the explosion by going over emergency procedures for a propane truck. He said the Hallowell department responds to “half-a-dozen” gas-related calls each year.

On Sept. 20, Hallowell Fire Department responded to a smell of propane on Balsam Drive at a senior living community. A post on the Hallowell department’s Facebook page said departments from Farmingdale, Randolph, Manchester and Augusta responded.

“A smell of propane was present outside and the large 30,000-gallon propane tank was shut down,” the post read. “The residents of the large retirement home were evacuated and the building was thoroughly (checked) with multiple gas meters by firefighters. No trace of gas was found in the building and the gas supplier was notified to follow up with the investigation.

“I would like to thank all of the responders including both gas companies and the supplier,” the post continued. “Following the tragic events of Monday, firefighters trained on propane procedures on Tuesday. The procedure worked well today.”

Press Herald/Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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