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TECO confirms gas was on at Lealman fire two hours after firefighters arrived

A Lealman firefighter examines the damage after an early morning blaze erupted at the Town Apartments North last month. Notes show that the gas was still on almost two hours after firefighters arrived.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

A Lealman firefighter examines the damage after an early morning blaze erupted at the Town Apartments North last month. Notes show that the gas was still on almost two hours after firefighters arrived.

LEALMAN — A TECO official has confirmed his company shut off gas to the Florian building at Town Apartments North almost two hours after firefighters arrived to battle an early morning blaze late last month.

Lealman Fire Chief Rick Graham maintains that the valve had likely been shut off earlier but turned back on during the confusion that comes with fighting fires. Besides, Graham said, the gas posed no danger at any time during the morning even if it had never been cut off.

Largo Fire Chief Mike Wallace said cutting off utilities, such as gas and electricity, is vitally important in putting out fires. Live gas can feed a fire, making it virtually impossible to put out or to contain, he said.

"Identifying the shut-off valve for all utilities … has to be controlled very early on in a fire," Wallace said. "Early, early, early is always one of the keys to fighting a fire."

It's a controversy that might have been avoided had there been a current "pre-plan" available on the countywide computer system available to firefighters. The pre-plan is a detailed drawing of buildings such as condominiums, schools and manufacturing plants that shows exact locations of escape routes, electrical panels and gas shut-off valves. The pre-plans are supposed to be filed on the county site so firefighters who come in from other areas will immediately know where to go to help people escape, to hook up to hydrants, to park and to shut off utilities.

But Lealman had not placed its diagram of Town Apartments North on the county site, although Graham said there was a current plan in the command truck that allowed the chiefs to direct firefighters where to go to best fight the blaze.

Notes from the morning of Oct. 23 show that firefighters arrived at 5:48 a.m. Progress Energy was called at 5:51 a.m. to shut off electricity to all buildings. Progress Energy did that about 6:11 a.m.

A note indicates that at 6:33 a.m., someone asked if the gas had been cut off. Apparently, firefighters were sent to the center breezeway of the building to cut the gas but, at 6:42 a.m., those firefighters responded that the gas shut-off was not located there. The firefighters continued to look for the shut-off, which was at the corner of the building behind some bushes. At 7:17 a.m., one or more firefighters reported smelling gas and a few seconds later, Graham called TECO Peoples Gas.

"They asked us to go out there and cut off the gas," said Rick Morera, a spokesman for TECO Peoples Gas.

TECO arrived about 7:32 a.m. and found the gas on. TECO turned off the valves at 7:42 a.m., almost two hours after firefighters arrived.

Graham said that by that time, the fire was out with the exception of some hot spots.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

TECO confirms gas was on at Lealman fire two hours after firefighters arrived 11/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 4:37pm]
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