‘Nothing being ruled out’ in investigation of Fire, EMS fuel mix-up

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 17, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

PRINCE GEORGE – County fire and emergency management officials said they are still investigating what led to two diesel fuel tanks at Prince George fire stations being contaminated with gasoline, resulting in several units requiring that fuel to be extracted and a complete inspection of all of the county’s fire and EMS apparatus, taking many units out of service for a portion of last Monday.

Last week, county officials communicated to residents that a “fuel mix-up” placed Prince George’s emergency vehicles out of service, leading to the county’s mutual aid partners from neighboring jurisdictions being placed on standby should an emergency occur in Prince George as they worked to inspect vehicles and return them to service and determine what led to gasoline being introduced into the diesel units.

By Tuesday, operations had returned to normal and, during the county’s board of supervisors meeting, Prince George Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens provided a detailed walkthrough of what happened the day prior and how they responded to it.

In a report to county leaders, he explained their first alert to a problem with some of the department’s units came in around 10 a.m. last Monday when it was revealed two medic units had been taken out of service for mechanical reasons. Both vehicles were brought to the county’s garage at the Prince George Government Center complex where fleet management staff determined that “the diesel fuel in both units had been contaminated with gasoline.”

“It was later determined that multiple fire and EMS units were experiencing similar problems and, as the notifications were made, it was unclear how many units were affected by the situation,” he shared. “Therefore, we declared a local emergency, opened our emergency operations center, activated county staff, and began further investigating the severity of the issue.”

Prince George fire engines staged outside Station 7 during its grand opening earlier this year. Last week, all of the county’s fire and EMS units were pulled from service for inspection after gasoline found its way into several units last Monday. According to officials, operations returned to normal by that evening. (Michael Campbell)

As a result, all of the county’s fire and EMS units were taken out of service, allowing fleet management staff time to inspect the fuel in all apparatuses. While that was occurring, Prince George emergency management officials began notifying surrounding communities of the ongoing situation with the expectation that the county would be requesting mutual aid for any calls for service during that time.

As units were cleared, they were given the green light to return to service immediately, with the first station brought back on line in roughly a half-hour Monday.

“When that station went online, we changed our dispatching priority so they would be alerted on every call for service, in addition to mutual aid units that were brought in, if needed,” Owens explained. “As the other stations were brought back online, the same process took place.”

According to Owens, all stations in the county were brought back online by 5 p.m. that same day and resumed full operations.

So far, their investigation narrowed down the origins of the contaminated fuel to two fuel tanks, one at Station 6 on South Crater Road and Station 8 along Prince George Drive.

“We are working with our vendor right now to get those tanks pumped out, cleaned, and refueled as quickly as possible,” Owens said. “We have contingency plans in place to make sure those stations can get refueled either [at the county garage] or at another station.”

When asked about possible damage to units, Owens said there haven’t been any reports of mechanical issues with any of the affected apparatuses.

In a later interview, the fire and EMS director said, in total, “three engines, one ladder truck, and three medic units” were affected by the contaminated fuel.

“They started draining fuel early in the afternoon and late into the evening,” Owens detailed. “It was several hours making sure they got all of the contaminated fuel out, replacing the fuel filters, getting it out of the lines, and putting fresh fuel in them to get them back running. The contaminated fuel containers that were taken out also had to be taken to another location to secure them.”

When discussing their response, Owens offered high praise for the Prince George’s fleet management team at the county garage, who worked quickly to, not only find the cause of the mechanical issues but also get as many unaffected units back in service following thorough inspections of their fuel.

“That was one of the benefits of activating our emergency operations center, we were able to get all the players into one room that had a role in the event,” he said. “We were able to brainstorm, discuss what we think is going on, how do we identify it, and how do we fix it? Also looking at some short-term goals to get units back in service, and what the long-term goals were. The team came together and started working through those things, making sure we had identifications one [that were affected] and the ones that weren’t, they were back in service very quickly so it was invaluable having everyone together.”

Brad Owens, director of the county’s fire and EMS agencies said they are still actively investigating how gasoline found its way into two stations’ fuel tanks, adding that they are not ruling any possibilities out. (Michael Campbell)

Owens noted, despite putting the call out to neighbors for mutual aid during Monday’s event, no emergencies were reported during that time but, he stressed the importance of having those resources at the ready should the county have needed them.

“We were fortunate, we did not have any calls for service that took place during that time period, but we know that our partnerships with our regional players and local fire and EMS departments are strong and anytime we need assistance, they’re there,” he remarked. “I had them calling me asking if we needed anything, if we wanted to move units into the county so, we have a great partnership with all of the Crater region.”

When asked about their investigation, Owens reiterated that they are still working to determine how gasoline was introduced into the diesel tanks and eventually, several units.

“It is all under investigation right now so we are not ruling anything out or speculating or anything,” he said. “We want to make sure we have results, then we can move forward with that and conduct an investigation depending on which route we need to go.”

At the end of the day, Monday’s disruption did present challenges to the county’s emergency operations for a time but, through training and the development of various contingency plans, Owens said the county was prepared to respond to the situation with as little interruption to the county’s efforts to keep residents safe.

“We train on this quite a bit,” he said. “We have an all-hazards approach in everything we do so, we don’t want to focus on one specific area and forget about certain things so we always have plans in place for any kind of event that may impact the county so we can handle it the best way we can with the resources we have available.”

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