Propane team does its best work under pressure

August 18, 1997


Staff Writer

Hancock volunteer firefighters arrived at the Rayloc automotive plant last month to face an exceedingly precarious situation.

Here's what they saw:

Fire was raging around a 36,000-gallon propane gas tank. Unsure how to handle the delicate problem, they called in the experts.

But even officials from Washington County's hazardous materials unit needed extra help. Fortunately, a representative of Shawley's L.P. Gas was only a phone call away.


"When HAZMAT pulled onto the scene, we made the call even before we got there when we found out it was propane," said John Bentley, the team's deputy coordinator.

It's a good thing, too, Bentley said, because the emergency required specialized knowledge and experience beyond what HAZMAT could provide.

The problem was that putting out the fire would have allowed the gas to drift away - and possibly ignite somewhere else. Letting the fire burn, though, increased the risk that the tank would explode.

So Shawley's employee Harry Duttinger took charge, Bentley said. When he tried to shut off the valve, it initially did not work, Bentley said. But years of training and familiarity with propane gave him the insight to try Plan B.

"That was not a clear, cut-and-dried manual incident," Bentley said.

Donning protective clothing and shielded by a wall of water from fire hoses, Duttinger sealed off the tank. The remaining gas quickly burned up and the crisis was over.

It is the kind of operation that specialized fire and rescue personnel conduct all the time. But in this case, Duttinger was working not for some HAZMAT unit or fire company but for a private firm that offers its services in emergencies involving propane gas.

William G. Shawley, president of the Maugansville company, said his business has been providing the service - free of charge - since it opened 25 years ago. He and Duttinger alternate for on-call duty throughout the year.

Providing emergency response service to homes and businesses - even non-customers - is not only good for the community but sound business, Shawley said.

"We want the community to be safe. Any bad publicity is bad for any gas company," he said.

Shawley estimated the company responds to about six incidents per year in the Tri-State area, although most are not nearly as dramatic as the Hancock incident. He said they range from accidents involving barbecue equipment to large industrial tanks.

And while their primary training is in propane, Duttinger said the company will respond to any emergency they are called to by emergency services personnel.

"Our first thing is to respond and then we can always go home," Duttinger said. "We're not going to walk away. We'll help any way we can."

And when they do have to act, the tools of the trade can be deceiving. Shawley said about 90 percent of the incidents can be solved with the equipment in a small metal box.

The box contains caps to plug leaks, wooden pins to drive into pipes and hose clamps. It also has a pair of Neoprene gloves, since propane dissolves plastic or rubber on contact.

If something must be hammered, rubber mallets are used, Shawley said, because a metal hammer could cause a spark. To locate a leak, he pulled out a container of leak detector - a substance spread on a tank. Any gas leak will blow bubbles, he said.

The tools, for the most part, are fairly simple. It's the training that makes the difference, Shawley said.

And on that score, Shawley has a lot of experience. He said his company helped develop training methods with the University of Maryland. HAZMAT officials in Washington County said the company has also been generous in sessions with volunteer fire departments and HAZMAT.

Defusing emergencies can have it's downside, though. While Shawley said providing the service increases name recognition, he added that he would be more than happy if it was unnecessary.

"There is a need for what we do, but we don't want people to be afraid of gas," he said.


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