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Pennsylvania

Statewide program planned to train first responders on hazards of natural gas vehicles

| Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, 6:31 p.m.
Tom DeRose, an employee of the turnpike maintenance department, fills up a truck during a news conference on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, announcing the opening of three natural gas fueling dispensers for public use at the New Stanton Service Plaza.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Tom DeRose, an employee of the turnpike maintenance department, fills up a truck during a news conference on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, announcing the opening of three natural gas fueling dispensers for public use at the New Stanton Service Plaza.

First responders will have to deal with new challenges — and use different techniques — if called to battle fires or crashes involving vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas, officials planning a statewide training program said.

Since compressed natural gas is catching on as a fuel source — the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened three fueling stations at its New Stanton service plaza — fire officials across the state hope to start the training program for local firefighters and rescue workers in March.

“We are currently working to get a vendor on board to provide (training to the trainers) for adjunct staff in February,” fire Commissioner Ed Mann said. “We will begin offering classes in March.”

The natural gas fueling dispensers at the turnpike's New Stanton plaza, which opened in November, have been “moderately busy,” averaging about 10 cars per day, officials said.

Firefighters in New Stanton and Mt. Pleasant, the closest communities to the station, know this is a game changer.

“Natural gas is contained in a high-pressure fuel vessel, not a standard gasoline tank,” New Stanton fire Chief Brandon Todd said. “It can pose different risks.”

In 2007, an arsonist torched a car powered by compressed natural gas in a Seattle parking lot, and members of a fire crew with a hand-held hose narrowly escaped injury when they came within 50 feet of the vehicle as it exploded. Twelve cars were damaged, and debris was thrown as far as 100 feet in all directions.

Since then, no other incidents involving natural gas-powered vehicles have occurred, said Randy Hansen, chief of Battalion 5/D of the Seattle Fire Department.

Pennsylvania fire crews likely will be taught to cool the gas using tremendous amounts of water, said Greg Jakubowski, a state fire instructor and chief of the Lingohocken Fire Company in Bucks County. Natural gas is lighter than air and dissipates quickly when released.

“It takes a lot of water; it takes a lot of time,” said Jakubowski, who will not be involved in the training.

The need for water could cause problems along a highway if there are no water supplies nearby.

The typical tanker truck holding 4,000 gallons of water could be emptied in less than 10 minutes, he said.

Fire crews then would have to bring in another tanker or travel to the nearest water supply to refill.

Cooling down the gas could be done from a safe distance to minimize risks to firefighters, Jakubowski said.

“The fear is a trapped person,” he said. “That would put firefighters at risk.”

In opening the dispensing station in November, officials from the turnpike and Sunoco Inc. said the site was chosen for its high volume of truck traffic.

“CNG is especially popular among commercial truck fleets, and this plaza was selected in part because this stretch has a higher volume of truck traffic than most,” turnpike CEO Mark Compton said.

On average, westbound traffic is 17,500 vehicles per day. About a third of those — about 5,300 — are commercial vehicles, more than double the turnpike's average, he said.

Natural gas-powered vehicles were first commercialized in Italy after World War II.

Proponents say natural gas is clean, abundant, cheap and home grown. But there have been problems with some of the American-made CNG vehicles.

GM recalled more than 3,000 vehicles powered with compressed natural gas last year because of concerns they could leak and catch fire.

Still, experts said they can be as safe — or safer — than conventional vehicles.

CNG tanks contain gas, not liquid. But they can fail, and that could be deadly during fire conditions, experts said.

“The biggest take-away is for firefighters to take that extra 15 to 30 seconds to adequately size up the incident, recognize potential unforeseen hazards and take appropriate measures to adjust tactical deployment safely,” said Hansen, the Seattle fire chief.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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