In his 30 years as a firefighter, Mike Miller answered countless calls to investigate gas leaks.  Most turned out to be harmless, but every call carried with it potential catastrophe.  Now, Miller helps train those following in his bootsteps to better recognize the danger that awaits them on every gas leak call.

And that’s where FabCore Plastics comes in.

Miller  is a public safety trainer for NIPSCO, which provides natural gas service to approximately 859,000 customers across 32 counties in northern Indiana. FabCore is a Fort Wayne company that specializes in design and fabrication of custom polymer products. When NIPSCO came up with an innovative approach to teaching area firefighters how natural gas acts when it’s leaking, it turned to FabCore to construct a first-of-its-kind, three-dimensional training aid.

The result is a three-level, dollhouse-sized structure Miller uses to demonstrate to firefighters how natural gas moves when it is leaking inside a home or building.  In dramatic fashion, it allows trainees to visualize where danger lurks and how explosive forces act if the worst happens and the gas ignites.

“We needed a way to relate how gas travels in a structure,” he says of his new visual aid, which replaces a clear, cylinder-shaped device he had used for the same purpose for the past five years. “This is no longer just an experiment showing the flammability of gas, but a demonstration. We needed a way to show how gas moves up and down, in an out of interior spaces. This does that.”

He and FabCore President Jason Mueller — who also is a retired firefighter — collaborated to bring the training house concept, suggested by NIPSCO Public Awareness Manager Jennifer Barbour, to fruition. The final version features five segmented spaces — including an attic — with moveable doors and windows, floor openings to simulate plumbing lines, and a center-hinged roof, which all open to release the flame and pressure when gas is ignited.

And it’s all about ignition.  Gas and air is an explosive mixture,  but only when the percentage of gas falls within the “flammable range.” That danger zone is between 4 and 15 percent of the air in a given space. Firefighters, first responders, and utility technicians all use hand-held monitoring devices to measure the gas saturation in an area before they begin their work.  If the percentage of gas is zero to 3 percent, there is not enough gas to support combustion.  If it is between 16 and 100 percent, the mixture is too “rich” and the gas will not ignite. These percentages can vary from room to room inside any structure, though.

“This new model allows firefighters to ‘see’ the entire house,” Miller says. “NIPSCO is in the forefront of this kind of training in the state of Indiana and this innovative structure is one of the reasons why.”

Mueller engineered the house from Miller’s hand-drawn plans. All the acrylic pieces were CNC-cut and the FabCore staff completed the assembly, bonding the pieces with a solvent glue to ensure structural integrity.

“The glue actually melts the pieces together, rather had having them attached with surface glue,” Mueller explains. “NIPSCO wanted clear pieces so the explosions could be seen, and that limited what we could use because the plastics we could weld are not transparent.  But we found the right glue, and also used some black pieces as backdrops to provide better visual contrast.”

The NIPSCO house debuted in early November at a two-hour training session Miller conducted at a South Bend-area volunteer fire department.  A few days later, it helped illustrate his presentation to a utility damage prevention conference at French Lick Resort in southern Indiana.

Miller has received great feedback from the firefighters, first responders, and utility safety team members who have gone through the safety training. “FabCore did an excellent job with the design, which I think was a successful attention-getter,” he says. “And after the presentation at French Lick, several people in the audience came up to take a closer look at it and asked more questions about it.”

Miller believes the model home will become an integral part of the Natural Gas Safety Program training he and fellow NIPSCO operations leaders present to firefighters, emergency medical services, police and other first-responder agencies across the NIPSCO footprint.

“We have hundreds of these sessions a year,” he says. “We speak their language.”

And sometimes, a visual is worth a thousand words.

Pointing to a still from a video, Miller shows how flame from gas ignited inside the new training aid escapes through an opening at the roofline.

NIPSCO’s Mike Miller shows how a hand-held monitor, like those used by emergency workers, measures the percentage of gas inside the hew “dollhouse” training aid at his office in Fort Wayne. The new structure replaces the cylinder at right, which had been used for the same purpose.