Gas leak calls spiked in the months after last year’s explosion at JJ’s

Emergency calls about natural gas odors spiked more than 70 percent in Kansas City after the fatal gas explosion and fire at JJ’s restaurant last February, the Kansas City Fire Department reported Wednesday.

Deputy Fire Chief Donna Maize attributed the dramatic increase in part to heightened public awareness of the threat posed by gas leaks after the blast, which killed one person and injured 15.

However, she said another reason might be more gas leaks caused by an increase in the number of underground drilling operations in the area as contractors install fiber optic cable for telecommunications companies.

It was just such a drilling operation that sprung the gas leak outside JJ’s an hour before an unknown ignition source caused the blast.

But Maize said she had no data to support either theory.

A spokeswoman for Missouri Gas Energy said odor calls to the gas company did not increase during roughly the same period. She had no figures on the number of verified gas leaks because of excavation work.

The Missouri One Call System, which notifies utilities of digging activity, did not have data readily available about gas line damage in Kansas City.

Whatever the cause, when Maize compared the number of calls about gas odors before and after the department changed its response protocols to those reports last March 13, the increase was startling.

In the 11 months between then and Feb. 14 of this year, the department responded to 681 reports of suspected but not verified gas leaks. That was an increase of more than two-thirds from the previous 13 months, when there were 398 calls.

Calls about indoor gas odors also increased, from 367 in the 13 months before last March 13 to 455 calls since then. On a monthly basis, those indoor reports were up an average of 46 percent.

The department beefed up its response procedures three weeks after the JJ’s blast. Some critics said the department’s response that day lacked urgency. A single pumper truck responded to the report of a gas leak outside the restaurant.

The truck had no gas meter on board to measure unsafe levels and left without ordering an evacuation when a gas company crew arrived. The leak continued, and the restaurant blew up about 45 minutes later.

Since the policy change, Fire Department protocol treats all suspected gas leaks the same, Maize said. The initial response is to send out a firetruck with equipment to monitor gas levels in the air, along with a battalion chief to decide whether an evacuation is necessary.

Department personnel now stay on the scene until the threat is eliminated.