On Sept. 16, an explosion claimed the life of a Farmington firefighter and injured seven other people.

That incident, the result of a propane gas leak, has central Maine firefighters seeing an increase in gas-related calls, and a careful review of how they approach such scenes.

Capt. Michael Bell of the Farmington Fire Rescue Department was killed in an explosion earlier this month at the LEAP central office at 313 Farmington Falls Road. Six firefighters and LEAP’s maintenance supervisor were also injured while responding to a reported smell of propane at the building, which exploded shortly after the firefighters arrived. An investigation into the explosion is ongoing, but investigators said Friday that a leak in a propane line caused the explosion.

Jefferson Fire Chief Walter Morris said other departments around him have seen an increase in gas-related calls. His town, however, has been slightly insulated from gas calls because there is no natural gas pipeline serving the town. He said the explosion in Farmington has made everyone more aware of potential gas-related emergencies.

“Everybody has a heightened awareness and I think they’re being more cautious,” Morris said, adding that it is a positive outcome. “They’re calling right away.”

Morris said he reviewed the department’s response policy with his crews after the Farmington explosion. He said Lincoln County fire departments are working with heating oil companies to put together a program for maintenance workers in schools or other large buildings on “what to do if they suspect a gas leak.”


Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens, whose department has provided station coverage for Farmington Fire Department, said the explosion affected his crews “quite a bit.”

“It hits close to home,” he said. “These guys were our friends, so it’s been tough.”

Members of the Capitol Police and Augusta Fire Department walk around the State Street perimeter of the Department of Health and Human Services on Sept. 19 after the road was closed and the building evacuated due to a reported gas leak. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Owens told the Kennebec Journal last week that response procedures try to limit a firefighter’s exposure to gas. He said trucks should park a good distance from the suspected leak and only two to four people should be sent inside the building at a time.

The main goal, Owens said, is to isolate the source of the leak. After that, he said firefighters will use meters to determine if gas is in “the explosive range.”

“We don’t want to be in there because anything could set it off,” Owens said. “We call a full response. We don’t try to handle it ourselves.”

Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said he will not consider changes to response policy until a full report from the Farmington explosion comes out. He said any changes made before that would not be based on fact and, as of now, there are few known facts about the explosion.


“All we know is there was a gas leak and there was an explosion,” he said. “Until those reports come out, I don’t see any big changes.”

Mount Vernon Fire Chief Dana Dunn said the Lake Region Mutual Aid group is “looking into more training” for gas- or propane-related calls.

Department of Health and Human Services employees and Augusta firefighters wait during a search Sept. 19 for the origin of a reported gas leak at DHHS in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Augusta Fire Department responded to an odor of propane call on State Street on Sept. 19. Battalion Chief John Bennett said there was no leak, just the smell of gas leftover from filling tanks earlier in the day. Fire Chief Roger Audette, on behalf of the Augusta department, declined to comment about the department’s protocols for responding to gas leaks.

Hallowell’s crews, along with personnel from Randolph, Manchester and Farmingdale, trained the day after the explosion by going over emergency procedures for a propane truck. He said the Hallowell department responds to “half-a-dozen” gas-related calls each year.

On Sept. 20, Hallowell Fire Department responded to a smell of propane on Balsam Drive, which is in Granite Hill Estates, a senior living community. A Facebook post on the Hallowell department’s Facebook page said departments from Farmingdale, Randolph, Manchester and Augusta responded to the call.

“A smell of propane was present outside and the large 30,000-gallon propane tank was shut down,” the post read. “The residents of the large retirement home were evacuated and the building was thoroughly (checked) with multiple gas meters by firefighters. No trace of gas was found in the building and the gas supplier was notified to follow up with the investigation.

“I would like to thank all of the responders including both gas companies and the supplier,” the post continued. “Following the tragic events of Monday, firefighters trained on propane procedures on Tuesday. The procedure worked well today.”

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