NAPLES — Naples city crews have responded to a handful of natural gas leaks since a propane explosion blew out windows and doors at Mangrove Cafe on Fifth Avenue South in January 2011.
The increase in these calls led to formal training this month with TECO Peoples Gas for Naples firefighters who now are better prepared to respond to leaks.
"We really had no training specifically dealing with natural gas before," Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny said. "So this was really in-depth, taste, touch, smell."
Twenty-seven firefighters, including North Naples and East Naples fire departments, were involved in the training over three days to locate, excavate and isolate leaking pipes underground as well as above-ground in simulations at a training site on 10th Street North.
TECO helped develop a protocol for first-responders in the county when dealing with natural gas leaks, McInerny said.
Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for TECO, said the company does training drills regularly with different municipalities.
McInerny said city staff members are passing out brochures on natural gas and propane safety to city business owners, including tips for how to use outdoor patio heaters safely.
Recent natural gas and propane problems in the city are the result of three factors: accidents during construction when workers nick a pipe; faulty equipment inside restaurants that breaks; complacency on the part of workers or home owners who don't react quickly in emergencies.
"Some people realized it was leaking and didn't take definitive action," McInerny said. "The other was turning it on and being delayed in lighting the grill."
If you smell gas
Do not use any phone in your building.
Call 911 as soon as you can safely do so.
Do not try to light any appliance.
Do not touch any electrical switches.
Do not light a cigarette in the area.
Exit the building, leaving the doors open.
Source: City of Naples Fire-Rescue Department
In January, a gas leak on 8th Street South shut down Fifth Avenue South businesses for more than 12 hours. It took all of the next day for crews from TECO to reignite pilot lights in each restaurant. In the meantime, workers cooked on grills or served cold food.
In February and March, restaurants on 12th Avenue South and Fifth Avenue South had similar emergencies. A Feb. 27 leak at Bistro 821 across the street from Mangrove Cafe forced crews to shut off gas to two defective stove valves. Crews also responded to a leak at Chez Boet Restaurant on 12th Avenue South where gas had filled both the restaurant and a neighboring ceramics studio.
In an email to city staff in March, McInerny warned of future explosions like the one that injured three last year.
"We are likely to experience another Mangrove Cafe incident if we continue on this track and pace," he wrote.
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Cafe owners have said it cost $650,000 to repair and reopen the restaurant 10 months later.
City staff met with TECO officials following the January leak to discuss training after it took TECO crews about an hour to respond to the scene.
Mayor John Sorey said the firefighter training will help avoid future explosions.
"We'll have a confident, trained group that can stop the gas flow as quickly as possible," he said of fire crews.
City Manager Bill Moss said the training sessions signaled a unique partnership with TECO that the city hasn't previously had with other utility providers.
"Now our crews can begin repairing or shutting off affected areas to minimize the interruptions to our businesses," he said.
More training will be held in the coming weeks for other firefighters in Collier County, including Marco Island personnel.
"We definitely learned about the hazards associated with natural gas leaks," McInerny said.