By Jaimie Julia Winters
They say call before
you dig for a reason. In New Jersey, over 800 gas leaks or gas line ruptures a year are caused by excavators and contractors who haven’t called 811 to have PSE&G mark utility lines before the digging starts.
On Monday, March 26, Montclair Fire, Police and Emergency Medical Services joined PSE&G for the utility’s first gas safety exercise of 2018.
The scenario: an excavator hits a gas line while using a backhoe to dig up the front lawn at 118 Gates Ave. He immediately hears hissing and then is overcome by the smell of rotten eggs. He turns off the engine, grabs his cell phone and dials 911 and tells the dispatcher he’s hit a gas line. Police, fire, EMS and PSE&G are dispatched and respond in less than a half hour. PSE&G responders locate the leak and evaluate it.
“Where is the odor coming from? What does it smell like? Which way is the wind blowing? Can you see, hear, feel the gas blowing?”
Police go door to door evacuating homeowners within the “hot zone” or 330 feet. Fire trucks stand by. Across the street, EMTs are evacuating Gates Manor, a nursing home, and placing residents on a comfort bus station down the street. The exercise goes from the best case scenario – the leak is located and plugged – to the worst – an explosion.
Responding to a gas leak is very different than responding to a fire, said Joe Martillotti, PSE&G’s senior director of gas field operations. More people need to be evacuated as the area is larger for the gas company, cutting off power may not be possible and solar panels and generators could be potential sources of ignition.
The morning provides local police, fire and EMTs a chance to work side by side with PSE&G, who also conducts a breakdown and evaluation of each crews’ response over the two-hour drill.
“Exercises of this nature are essential for our first responders and public safety officials to ensure preparedness in the event of a real, potentially catastrophic event. The gas leak scenario not only affords personnel an opportunity to practice responding to this type of emergency, but to subsequently review their actions so that they may be more proficient in a real world situation,” said Mayor Robert Jackson.
Fire Chief John Herrmann said his crew will end the exercise with lessons learned that will be applied in the future in the case of a gas leak.
“Anytime we get a chance to all work together and plan, it’s a good thing,” said Herrmann. “It’s invaluable to learn what they can improve upon at the end of this.”
PSE&G routinely performs the simulated exercises in order to better communications and update protocols. The drill was the first of seven planned for 2018.
“Conducting a full-scale drill enables us to prepare for the worst case scenario and learn from each other and ensuring a coordinated response when it’s not just a drill,” said Martillotti.