By LT Christopher Norine
As a naval officer, I train and deploy in an environment where safety is a primary consideration every day. We learn to react to emergencies in the aircraft calmly and without hesitation. However, I didn’t apply that mindset on a sunny afternoon in my own backyard.
It started as just another Saturday in the central valley of California. Even in the middle of January, the weather is typically mild (think mid-60s and sunny), and grilling is usually a year-round activity. I hadn’t used my propane grill in months, which means it was completely covered in dirt and dust. My first act of the day was to completely clean it, both inside and out. I lit it to make sure the gas line was working as advertised. Satisfied that it was working, I cooked up a cut of tri-tip steak. When it was done, I brought the steak inside. My typical cleanup process is step-by-step and very methodical. I’m the kind of person who has to do things the same way every time (thanks to a few years flying grey airplanes). I typically extend this mentality into my daily personal life. My grill cleanup was so ingrained that I was on autopilot, and that was where my woes for the day began.
Here’s my process: First I turn on the grill burners as low as possible while remaining lit. Then I shut off the propane gas at the valve. This process (I believe) allows all residual gas to be drawn out of the lines. Next, I clean the grill with a wire brush to prevent build-up and corrosion. Last, I start carving and eating, and everyone is happy with my slightly above-average ability to grill a steak without turning it to charcoal.
This time, as I shut off the propane tank at the valve, something didn’t seem right. It took my brain about a second to register the intense burning sensation on my hand. I pulled away, noticing a flame on the fitting between the propane tank and the grill’s gas line. At some point between my cleaning in the morning and the end of my grilling session, the fitting that screwed onto the tank had failed, allowing a small propane leak. The flame was directly under the metal valve controlling the flow of propane from the tank. Consequently, the valve had gotten extremely hot.
Instead of running in the opposite direction and grabbing a fire extinguisher, I instead employed a few choice epithets about the grill, turned off the burners and blew out the flame. Then I went inside, grabbed an oven mitt and wore it while closing the valve. Gases expand as they heat up, at least according to my high school chemistry teacher. I had no idea how extensive this leak was or how long it had been lit. The worst thing that could have happened was the tank could have exploded with me standing a few feet away.
I got away with second-degree burns on two of my fingers. And take the word of this “almost-a-statistic” grill master: second-degree burns hurt quite a bit. My almost-manic attention to detail also screamed out a major “other” for me during this whole evolution: I had no idea where I had placed my fire extinguisher. After tearing apart my place, I found it in the garage, wedged between my washer and dryer, where it was no help whatsoever. To top it off, the pain from the burns killed my appetite, so I did not even get to enjoy the food!
The business of naval aviation has taught me that we all make mistakes. The best course of action following a mistake is to determine the causal factors so that we prevent the mistake from happening again. From the start, I was behind the power curve due to complacency. I know that I have to take it slow if I have not been in the airplane for a while, and this should not be any different. My complacency also showed during my cleanup, when I grabbed something that had been pretty close to an open flame without actually getting eyes on it. If I had just looked, I would have seen the leak that had bloomed into an open flame.
This was also a case of bad situational awareness being worse than no situational awareness. I knew I hadn’t grilled in a while, and although I took some steps to mitigate the risks, I still missed a very important part. Nobody I know would admit that they could possibly screw up while grilling, but it can happen. But if you recognize that it has been a while, then there is no harm in double-checking everything as you go. The food will taste just as good and you can walk away without becoming another fire or injury statistic.
Lt. Norine is an F/A-18F weapons system officer with VFA-2
Before you grill, leak-check your propane tank hoses!
Supplies needed: Basting brush (or something similar) and a bowl of soapy water
SAFE GRILLING: STEP-BY-STEP
- Open the valve on your propane tank so that gas is flowing through the lines.During this entire process ensure you keep all open flames away from the grill.
- Brush down all hoses and connections slowly. Pay special attention to any bubbles; they indicate a leak.
- Once you’ve identified the leaks, shut off the fuel. Leaks are caused by two different conditions. One is a loose connection, which can be easily fixed by tightening up the fitting. The other is worn, warped, or cracked hose or fitting. The only solution is to replace the part. Consider your grill in a “down” status until properly functioning parts are installed.
- Once you’re good to go, choose your meat, poultry, fish or veggie of choice, and get grillin’!!!
Grilling Facts from the National Fire Protection Association: http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/outdoors/grilling