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Firefighters change rules for gas leaks in wake of JJ’s explosion

Updated: 2013-03-15T14:02:05Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Fire Department will change key elements of the way it responds to gas leaks, changes that might have made a difference in the deadly Feb. 19 explosion at JJ’s restaurant.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that from now on, the initial dispatch on any call about a possible natural gas leak will include a battalion chief and a fire truck equipped with equipment to monitor gas levels in the air.

In addition, firefighters will remain on the scene and continue to consult with gas utility experts to determine whether to evacuate an area or building. They will remain there until the risk has been resolved.

Those protocols were not in place and those procedures were not followed when firefighters first responded to JJ’s on the afternoon of the blast, which occurred after a contractor ruptured an underground gas pipe.

One pumper truck crew was dispatched to the reported leak. It arrived at the restaurant at 910 W. 48th St. at 5:04 p.m. and left at 5:17 p.m.

While they were on the scene, according to the Fire Department, someone from Missouri Gas Energy arrived and said that he “had the situation under control” and that the fire crew could leave. The crew advised JJ’s staff to keep all ignition sources off and told them to await an all-clear from the gas company.

“We then cleared the scene, leaving it with MGE,” said a Fire Department narrative of the events of that day.

In what was labeled Berardi’s final statement on the matter, the chief said Thursday: “Injuries to the public and the loss of property weigh heavily on firefighters, whether in major events such as this or in the fires and accidents we address every day. KCFD accordingly reviews all major operations, especially those involving injury or a fatality, for the purpose of improving firefighters’ ability to better protect human life and property.”

One employee of JJ’s was killed and 15 other people were injured in the blast and fire.

Mayor Sly James later vowed that the city would review its policies and procedures and make any changes necessary to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.

“The Fire Department’s first and highest priority is the safety of Kansas Citians,” James said Thursday night. “These changes highlight that commitment.”

City Councilman John Sharp, who is chairman of the public safety committee, said he was pleased by the protocol changes.

"It’s bad enough to have a tragedy like this but it would be worse if you don't learn from it," Sharp said.

The city on Wednesday released a “cause and origin” report of the explosion that determined it was caused by the accidental ignition of natural gas vapors that accumulated inside JJ’s restaurant. The report said two pilot lights were on at JJ’s before the explosion.

A separate investigation is being conducted into the gas line breach.

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com

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