Corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST): Ever heard of it? It’s possible you haven’t. And if you haven’t, now is the time to learn about the dangers CSST presents to the people in your community and to yourself and your colleagues in the fire service. In recent years, the fire service has seen multiple LODDs resulting from CSST-related fires. There is a unique danger that is only exacerbated by the lack of knowledge of CSST and the role it plays in these tragic and destructive incidents.
In a recent Lexipol webinar, the wives of two firefighters who died in CSST-related fires, along with leaders from their fire departments, discuss what CSST is, how it played a role in these LODDs, and how firefighters can protect their homes and themselves from this kind of tragedy in the future.
CSST Fires: The Risks
Originally developed in Japan to mitigate the risk of gas lines breaking due to earthquakes, CSST offers a relatively simple and cost-effective material for residential natural gas lines. Because CSST is relatively inexpensive, lightweight and easy to install, millions of new homes have been built with CSST gas lines over the last two decades. Not only is it used in new home construction, CSST has also been applied retroactively to outfit existing homes with natural gas. But the problems of CSST in electrical storms have become apparent with widespread use in the U.S., where cloud-to-ground lightning strikes are much more common.
CSST has varying grades of protection from lightning strikes. The most inexpensive type of CSST is identified by a yellow jacket; this CSST is the least resistant to lightning strikes. “The average lightning strike in the United States is between 24 and 28 coulombs of energy,” explains Capt. Craig Matthews of Howard County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services. CSST is “only tested to about four and a half coulombs, about a thousand amps.” Compare that to lightning strikes, which typically contain tens of thousands of amps of electrical current, and you can see there’s a problem. CSST is simply not created or tested to withstand power surges from lightning strikes.
There is a unique danger that is only exacerbated by the lack of knowledge of CSST and the role it plays in these tragic and destructive incidents.
These power surges can puncture the membrane of the CSST, allowing the natural gas to escape and ignite—either from the heat caused by the lightning or another heat source in or around the home. Many of these fires start in basements, but don’t present as typical basement fires. Because they can also have multiple points of origin, these fires can significantly damage the structure of the home without any obvious degradation visible from the ground level. This is where maydays can occur. Firefighters fall through the floor of the home, become trapped and can lose their lives.
What Firefighters Can Do
“If our husbands would have known about [CSST] and this really very simple information,” they would have survived, says Sara Laird, the wife of Battalion Chief Josh Laird, who died in a CSST fire. “It’s not a matter of if, but when—we know it will save lives.” Firefighters must take care when responding to fires following electrical storms. First, rule out the possibility the fire is related to CSST before entering the structure. Because these fires can be difficult to find and don’t present like typical a basement fire, firefighters searching for the source are at an increased risk of falling through the floor.
Take precautions and engage in best practices: Use your thermal imaging device; speak with the homeowner and glean any information you can about whether the home has gas or uses CSST lines; and try to determine how long the fire has been burning. Improved safety may be as simple as being diligent in your size-up and taking care to feel the floor before putting your weight on it. “Quick utility control and starting at the lowest level are two very important tactics on any structure fire following an electrical storm,” explains Chief Thomas Coe from the Frederick County (MD) Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
Firefighters can improve their own safety by being aware, but you also play an important role in growing awareness of CSST and its risks in your communities. Fire service leaders must also remain committed to collecting data on these fires and advocating for legislative change. “Understand what the issues are locally for you and your geography,” says Celeste Flynn, the wife of Lt. Nathan Flynn. “Just spread that awareness and keep that message going, make sure you’re sharing the knowledge.”
Learn more about CSST fires and review the after-action reports of two CSST-related incidents that led to these firefighter LODDs in the on-demand webinar, “What Is CSST? And Why Firefighters Must Know. Lessons Learned from 2 LODDs.”