With the passage of several days and the surfacing of more information, the human error that led to the fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant last week has become clear:
For more than an hour, as gas poured out of a broken line before the explosion, NO ONE WAS IN CHARGE.
I hate to say emergency responders were standing around with their hands in their pockets, but it’s pretty clear that nobody was doing much, for a long time, to protect citizens in the bar and in the immediate area. Evacuation didn’t start until a few minutes before the explosion, and apparently no one shut off the nearest gas valve.
(I would love to find out that was not the case, but in the absence of an assertion that gas was cut off, we’re left to assume it wasn’t.)
We all know by now that the Fire Department unwisely deferred to workers with Missouri Gas Energy.
Whoever the ranking fire fighter at the scene was…he failed to take charge.
Same for any of at least three MGE workers who arrived at the scene, separately, before the explosion. The fact that they arrived separately may well have contributed to a “who’s-in-charge-here” attitude.
The MGE workers told fire fighters that they had the situation under control. That’s a lot different, of course, than someone actually being in control.
The other main people on the scene — besides customers who smelled gas but didn’t go anywhere, partly because they weren’t told to — were the workers who pierced the gas line while digging in preparation to lay fiber optic cable.
None of them was in charge, of course. They work for a company that does work for Time Warner. They were trained in digging and running lines, probably not in organizing an evacuation and maybe not even in shutting off gas valves.
It was a most regrettable case, then, of a public agency and a private company being on the scene but neither knowing for sure which was in charge or what steps should be taken to protect the public.
In the absence of a clear process on what to do, the only hope that JJ’s patrons and workers had was that someone would step forward to fill the void. Unfortunately, no one picked up the hero’s mantle, and one person died and 15 were injured.
The Star’s Dave Helling reported yesterday that Kansas City’s generic emergency response plan calls for public safety officials — that is, police or fire fighters — to decide “if threats such as gas leaks warrant evacuations.”
That means the fire department should have taken the reins…Ah, but it’s not that simple.
The document goes on to say that “incident commanders” are in charge of “routine evacuations” — which, clearly, this should have been.
Strictly speaking, however, there was no “incident commander,” partly because, for some crazy reason, the fire department routinely takes a back seat to the gas company in the case of leaks.
Helling also wrote about another document that should help the city deal with similar situations in the future. It’s called the National Incident Management System. It’s produced by the federal government, and the fire department follows its guidelines.
The telling line in the document, as far as the JJ’s explosion is concerned, says that at the scene of a dangerous situation or a disaster, the command function “must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations.”
Makes all the sense in the world…So, let’s make sure that happens in the future.
Our very self-assured mayor — who sank from from mayor mode to lawyer mode that fateful day (and the next) — should step forward, soon, and hand down common-sense guidelines to govern dangerous situations where multiple agencies are involved.
“When an incident arises where public health and safety is at risk — and where more than one agency or entity is involved — the Kansas City Fire Department or the Kansas City Police Department — whichever is appropriate — will be in charge of the incident and will take immediate steps to protect the public.
“The highest-ranking officer at the scene will assume command, and he or she will organize and direct the response of whatever agencies are involved in the incident.”
Never again should we Kansas Citians see our well-paid, well-trained fire fighters (or police officers) standing down to some gas energy guys running around in jeans, T-shirts and hard hats.
And those guys…let’s make sure they know where the shutoff valves are and how to switch them to the off position.