As the end of National Safety Month approaches, first responders are reminded not only of the tremendous impact that public awareness can have on preventing common injuries and deaths, but also the unique role they have in fostering that awareness. Pursuant to a recent court case*, first responders have an affirmative duty to act—whether by educating the public or otherwise ensuring their safety—when there is a known and present danger.
With more than 177 million Americans relying on natural gas to meet their energy needs, there are few dangers as universally threatening as the fires and explosions resulting from gas leaks. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, pipelines are the safest means of transporting natural gas. Nevertheless, their figures indicate that nearly 900 natural gas pipeline incidents over the past 20 years have resulted in serious bodily injuries or fatalities.
As the 2.5 million miles of pipeline nationwide continue to naturally degrade over time, first responders’ training about and management of these leaks will become increasingly important.
- Use your nose. Though natural gas is odorless, chemicals are added to make it smell like rotten eggs. Early detection is important.
- Be careful. Natural gas is used as an energy source because it is highly combustible and easily moved. These properties also make it dangerous.
- Clear the area. Fires and explosions will impact nearby areas, so notify everyone. If you can smell the gas, keep on moving.
- Turn off the gas. This includes appliances, delivery meters, and curb shut-offs. Gas supply valves on gas meters can be turned off by rotating the valve one quarter turn using a wrench.
- Put out nearby flames. This includes cigarettes, vehicles, and pilot lights.
- Avoid sparks. Unplugging electronics, using a landline telephone, flipping a light switch, and even dragging your feet (static electricity) can all produce a lethal spark.
- Spread it around. Ventilating structures lowers the risk of asphyxiation and the chance of an explosion.
Responders have a duty to act
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently ruled that the City of Milwaukee could be found liable for its police and fire departments’ response to a gas leak and explosion. Municipalities are typically immune from liability related to how public officials handle discretionary, or non-required, acts. Noting that the gas leak presented a known and present danger, however, the three-judge panel held that the first responders had a “ministerial duty” to act during this emergency.
At 2:14 a.m. on February 1, 2009, two residents of a Milwaukee neighborhood called 911 to report an odor of natural gas. One reported that the gas line could be seen and heard coming out of the ground. By 2:29 a.m., Milwaukee police officers and firefighters dispatched to the scene confirmed that a gas leak was bubbling from the street. These first responders notified people door to door of the leak, but nobody was evacuated. Six minutes later, all firefighters returned to their stations while the police officers were left to wait for the utility company representatives to arrive.
Sadly, at 3:37 a.m., the home of Mary Oden and her eight-year-old son exploded due to a pilot light, leaving both with severe injuries. Immediately thereafter, an evacuation of the area was ordered, with police officers authorized to kick-in doors if necessary. Investigators have subsequently stated that if the outside meters were shut off, Oden’s pilot light would not have ignited and led to the explosion. Oden filed suit alleging that the first responders’ negligence was responsible for the injuries.
Training impacts lives and liability
Determining whether the police officers and firefighters were negligent on that day implicates their training. While hindsight may suggest that families should have been evacuated sooner, first responders are not considered negligent if they follow best practices.
However, the opinion indicates that Milwaukee’s training about gas leaks had much room for improvement. Despite the obvious severity of the gas leak, no efforts were made to evacuate homeowners. Moreover, the fundamental step of shutting off gas valves in the area was either overlooked or mishandled.
Even if the training content was sufficient, its dissemination was certainly not. The city delegated its responsibility to train police officers and firefighters on how to respond to natural gas emergencies to a third-party, the local utility company. In turn, the utility company provided a one-day training session to the Milwaukee Fire Department in 2008. There is no evidence on the record that Milwaukee Police Department officers ever received this specialized training.
Regardless of what was responsible for the breakdown in communication that left only the untrained group of responders at the scene on that early winter morning, cross-training would have ensured that both police officers and firefighters understood their respective roles during the gas leak. By fostering collaboration between first responders, municipalities and departments not only promote public safety, but lessen their exposure to claims of negligence.
Giving our brave men and women in uniform the training and tools they need to succeed will ensure that safety is not confined to a single month, but persists throughout the year.
*The case referenced in this article is Oden v. City of Milwaukee, 2014AP130 (Wis. Ct. App. March 3, 2015).
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