Fire departments share natural gas response procedures after JJ's Restaurant explosion

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In the wake of a deadly Kansas City restaurant explosion and fire, a lot of questions have revolved around evacuating people from the building.

Did the evacuation of JJ's Restaurant happen fast enough? Did the responding crews follow the book when it comes to dealing with natural gas leaks?

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Records provided by other fire departments to 41 Action News indicate evacuations are often the recommended protocol with natural gas leaks. They also seem to place evacuation decisions in the hands of fire department leaders at the scene.

During news conferences in the days following the fire, Kansas City leaders have repeatedly said they relied on information provided by experts from Missouri Gas & Energy at the scene Tuesday night.

"The utility company is the best one to determine all the issues," Kansas City Mayor Sly James said on Wednesday. "And no, it's not necessarily the best practice to evacuate entire city blocks of people because there is a strong odor of gas. A lot of times, you can do more harm than good."

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The explosion at JJ's restaurant happened just after 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The Kansas City Fire Department has reported that a crew arrived on scene about an hour before the blast, but left 15 minutes later after conferring with MGE workers.

According to MGE, one of its workers later began recommending people evacuate JJ's roughly 15 minutes before the explosion.

A number of witnesses said there was a strong odor of gas both inside and outside the restaurant during that time period.

On its website, the MGE safety advice in the situation of a suspected gas leak is concise: "EVACUATE the area or premises immediately!"

The 41 Action News investigators requested the natural gas response policies and procedures from other fire departments on Friday.

The Olathe Fire Departments policy said any gas leak or broken gas line should be "approached as potentially dangerous situations."

The policy recommends evacuating civilians in the area of escaping gas, controlling ignition sources, shutting off electrical power from outside breakers and taking measurements with a combustible gas indicator (CGI).

41 Action News also received the operating procedure from the St. Louis Fire Department on Friday.

For situations of gas escaping outside, the procedure said streets should be blocked, the area should be evacuated and surrounding buildings should be checked for presence of natural gas.

In cases where there is a strong odor of gas inside a building, the St. Louis policy states, "Evacuate occupants, fire department personnel and people from adjacent buildings as necessary."

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When asked about evacuation protocol during a Wednesday news conference, Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi said: "There's not necessarily a policy there. We would go and investigate the scene and find out what is there. Utilities on the scene let us know that the situation was under control. The policies were followed here. This isn't a situation where we are looking back to see if the policies were or were not followed."

41 Action News requested any KCFD policy that addresses response to natural gas leaks, but had not received any documents as of Sunday.

On Saturday, 41 Action News also received the tactical strategy from the Overland Park Fire Department.

The policy mirrored many of the details found in the Olathe and St. Louis natural gas approaches.

"If there is any indication of gas accumulating within a building, evacuate civilians from the structure and control ignition sources," the policy said. "Shut off electrical power from an outside breaker. Check for explosive concentrations with a combustible gas indicator if there is any suspicion of accumulation within a structure."

It is unclear if anyone from KCFD ever took any gas readings with a CGI, or if those measurements were left up to workers with MGE.

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