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‘Just get out,’ experts advise on gas leaks

Public safety summit » Utahns share ideas on smart strategies for handling crisis.

First Published May 08 2013 05:45 pm • Last Updated May 09 2013 09:01 am

Layton • Ed Rufener will never forget that summer afternoon when he tried to rescue a 75-year-old woman he’d seen inside her home just before it burst into a natural gas fireball.

Now, he said, he would do things differently when he learned a contractor had broken the gas line to Dorothy Walton’s South Salt Lake home.

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"We’d ask people to leave their house just as a precaution,"said Rufener, his face pained as he recalled the deadly incident 19 years ago.

Now deputy director of that city’s public works department, he shared his story as pipeline safety experts talked about how to prevent and address natural gas accidents.

The discussion took place Wednesday at the Governor’s Public Safety Summit, held this year at the Davis Conference Center. Around 500 participants were expected to attend two days of sessions covering everything from large-animal rescues to disaster recovery centers, debris flows and accommodating people with special needs during crises.

Organizers closed a session, "In the Line of Duty Death: The Ogden Shoot Out," to people who are not law enforcement officers. Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force agent Jared Francom was killed in a Jan. 4, 2012 shootout that began after officers served a "knock-and-announce" warrant on an Ogden home.

Hosts of the natural-gas pipeline workshop pointed out that using the Blue Stakes program, which marks buried utility lines, goes a long way toward preventing accidents.

Gary Hansen, president of Blue Stakes of Utah, pointed out that anyone digging near utility lines — to repair a sprinkler, plant a tree or the like — must notify his organization two business days in advance, either online or by calling 811.

Just 1 percent of accidents occur at locations where utilities were identified in advance of construction or digging, he added.

"The damage can be avoided," he said, "if you just make the call."

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Allie Boyle, public awareness coordinator for Questar, showed a case study from a 2002 explosion in Lafayette, Ind., that leveled four homes.

Incidents like this, experts agreed, have changed the message for anyone who sees or smells gas.

Just leave, they advise. Don’t call 911. Don’t turn off lights, the television or even the pilot lights on the furnace or the water heater — they all cause sparks. Just leave and make your emergency call once you are clear of the leak.

"You don’t want to do anything to create a source of ignition," said Questar’s Chad Lewis, who even recommended taking care to pick up your feet as you walk across the carpet toward the door to avoid a static electricity spark. "Call 911, and they’ll call us."

Rufener, meanwhile, waits until he’s a block away from a leak before making the emergency call.

He recalls having to turn back from the home where he’d seen Dorothy Walton through the window. He and other rescuers recoiled when the brims their hard hats melted at the doorstep.

"We felt very, very helpless," he told the group,"knowing she was in there."


Twitter: @judyfutah

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