An explosion at the Long Beach Fire Department’s training facility last year was caused by a miscommunication between two fire instructors running the live-fire drill for the first time, according to a new report that says the LBFD should shore up its training procedures.
Nobody was seriously hurt in the Nov. 8 explosion, but the blast left fire officials trying to understand what went wrong after the fireball blew out windows on a training structure, scorched protective gear, and left several participants with burns to their ears and necks.
A report, completed earlier this month, said the pair of instructors deviated from how the drill was conducted in the past, and, ultimately, they ignited a roomful of natural gas by accident when they didn’t communicate clearly.
Only because of their protective gear were the five recruits and four other LBFD employees participating spared “more significant injuries or death,” says the report, which the Long Beach Post obtained Tuesday through a Public Records Act request.
The Nov. 8 drill was meant to expose new fire recruits to high heat and smokey conditions as they get a feel for that protective gear.
Around 8:30 that morning, a team of firefighters took the recruits down to the basement of a practice tower at the Captain David Rosa Regional Training Center near Stearns Park.
In a special “burn room” within the basement, two fire instructors in charge of the exercise had been using a natural gas line to feed flames that would heat the room up to oven-like temperatures of about 400 degrees.
In prior trainings, the report says, instructors monitored the flames constantly and ran them for only about 15 minutes before shutting off the gas. On the day of the Nov. 8 drill, however, because of exceptionally cold conditions, the gas line had been running for two hours to heat up the room, and the instructors had checked on the blaze only periodically, fire officials said.
The instructors didn’t realize until entering the room that the flames had gone out sometime after their last check, leaving the room full of natural gas.
While one instructor turned off the gas line, the other ordered everyone back outside.
During this evacuation, the report says, one instructor said they were “‘good to go’ meaning to exit the basement.” The other instructor misinterpreted this, thinking they were “‘good to go’ to reignite the gas valve.”
When the instructor lit a road flare to relight the gas line, “he felt a rush of air followed by a bright flash of flame that briefly engulfed him,” the report says.
The “ball of fire” filled the entire basement, leaving some people engulfed for up to five seconds and others still flaming as they exited the building, according to the report.
It says the blast melted light fixtures, damaged walls and so severely scorched gear worn by most participants that it had to be thrown out.
The report, which was finalized on April 13, recommends tightening controls over who can run live-fire exercises.
In 2017, the department developed a certification process for such instructors, known as “burn bosses,” but that certification process hasn’t been followed in subsequent years, according to the report.
That process should be revived, the report says, and instructors should have better protocols for setting up live-fire exercises and preapproved plans for responding to contingencies like the flames accidentally going out.
Until this incident, the LBFD relied on verbal instruction and institutional knowledge to run such live-fire drills, according to LBFD spokesman Capt. Jake Heflin. In the wake of the explosion, the department is developing specific, written policies, he said.
But because there were no written policies at the time, neither of the instructors, who were not named in the report, was found to have violated any procedures, Heflin said.
Based on the report’s recommendations, the LBFD has also stopped using the basement burn room for this exercise. They’ve developed a new scenario that doesn’t rely on natural gas to expose recruits to high heat and smoke, Heflin said.