A burning fuel tank sparked a devastating fire on Southwest Boulevard on Aug. 18, 1959; five Kansas City firefighters and one civilian died battling the gasoline blaze. Flames from the explosion soared 1,600 feet in the air. | File photo
 

Fire department improvements often follow disaster in Kansas City

The Kansas City Fire Department had no policy on collapse zones before a wall fell on two firefighters and killed them.

It does now.

Sometimes it requires a shock to nudge an organization into taking a hard look at the way it does things.

Kansas City fire officials are still awaiting a federal report and recommendations in the wake of the October 2015 deaths of firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio. But a blistering internal report has already led to significant changes.

“We’re focusing our attention on systemic issues about the operation of not only the Kansas City fire service but also of other fire departments,” Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi told The Star.

“The Kansas City Fire Department has never concealed mistakes, and we don’t intend to.”

As with most long-established fire departments, Kansas City’s has an often tragic history. Individual episodes have contributed to the general knowledge and safety not only of this department but of the fire service in general.

The term “BLEVE” — referring to a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion — was first used to describe a burning fuel tank after a devastating fire on Southwest Boulevard on Aug. 18, 1959. Five Kansas City firefighters and one civilian died battling a gasoline fire when a 20,000-gallon tank spewed flames across the boulevard.

The incident, filmed by KMBC, led the fire service to develop safer methods of fighting fires involving flammable liquids and new controls over hazardous material storage and handling.

“The film that was recorded on the day of the fire was used as a training film around the world to show how not to fight a tank fire,” wrote Ray Elder in a history of the Kansas City department. “This film undoubtedly saved many from a similar fate.”

That was the worst loss for the Kansas City Fire Department until six firefighters were killed in a hazardous-material catastrophe on Nov. 29, 1988. An arson fire caused two explosions of ammonium nitrate stored at a construction site in south Kansas City. The city began requiring special signs to tell first responders what hazardous materials are present. Voters approved a cigarette tax to support a special hazmat division.

 
The worst loss for the Kansas City Fire Department occurred in a catastrophe at a construction site. Six firefighters died Nov. 29, 1988, when an arson fire caused two explosions of ammonium nitrate in south Kansas City. | File photo by Keith Myers

“We took from that event and we grew out of that event and we have one of the premier hazmat teams in the country because of it,” Berardi said.

The department received another shock when Battalion Chief John Tvedten became disoriented, ran out of air and died inside a burning paper warehouse on Dec. 18, 1999. The incident commander, who happened to be Berardi, sent in rescue squads but they could not find Tvedten before it was too late. Now, Kansas City firefighters regularly train in rapid-intervention teams.

Tvedten had a “personal alert safety system,” or PASS, which emits a sound to help rescuers find a firefighter, but he never activated it.

“That was the impetus of the first generation of the integrated PASS device,” Berardi said, referring to an alarm, connected to a firefighter’s air tank, that sounds automatically in times of distress.

An even newer generation displays how much air is left in the tank and includes a thermal-imaging camera. Equipping the Kansas City Fire Department with such devices could cost $1.5 million.

“Not this year,” Berardi said. “It’s in our long-range plan.”

But Kansas City fire officials began making other changes even before releasing in May the internal report on the deadly Oct. 12, 2015, collapse on Independence Boulevard.

One of the first areas addressed was a policy on collapse zones. Kansas City battalion chiefs now emphasize the basic rules to their firefighters. A collapse zone is an area that extends 1 1/2 times the height of a wall that is in danger of falling. When an incident commander establishes a collapse zone, everyone is supposed to get out.

Mesh and Leggio were among several firefighters who remained inside the collapse zone six minutes after it was declared. Incident Commander Todd Ackerson was on the radio, about to order them out of the zone, when the wall came down.

Some firefighters said they did not hear the command that established a collapse zone.

“The report says we shouldn’t have been there; I get that,” Berardi said. “I’m not making excuses, but six minutes is still a short amount of time, and it’s also a very dynamic and loud scene. So, if they said they didn’t hear it, I believe them that they didn’t hear it.”

A new department policy requires a roll call of all personnel when a collapse zone is established to account for everyone.

The importance of situational awareness and constant risk assessment is now incorporated into every component of fire training. That could be critical in a big fire in one of Kansas City’s several underground business complexes.

“We know that those are very dangerous situations,” Berardi said, “and we have a lot of subterranean facilities in our city, and we address that.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks