Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Norwich Public Utilities sends crew to help in gas emergency

When Columbia Gas’ natural gas system in northern Massachusetts was rocked by a series of explosions in mid-September, Norwich Public Utilities responded to a mutual aid request by sending 13 personnel to help restore the system.

A series of fires broke out and explosions occurred on Sept. 13 in the towns of South Lawrence, Andover and North Andover related to natural gas delivery, according to investor-owned NiSource, Columbia Gas’ parent company.

One person was killed, homes were destroyed and large parts of each municipality were evacuated. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency the next day.

NPU, a public power utility in Connecticut providing natural gas, electricity, water and wastewater collection and treatment to about 40,000 people, responded to a mutual aid request issued on Columbia Gas’ behalf by the Northeast Gas Association.

Over the weekend, crews accessed about 8,530 meters that were affected by the incident, turned the meters off and safely cleared homes for any gas leaks, according to NiSource.

Over 500 personnel, including service technicians and supervisors, from about 25 natural gas utilities helped in the mutual aid effort, according to the Northeast Gas Association.

NPU’s crew focused on Lawrence and North Andover, according to Chris LaRose, the utility’s assistant general manager.

Working with police and fire officials, many from outside the area, NPU’s crew spent about five days turning off gas service to affected homes and then relighting gas systems after natural gas service was restored, LaRose said.

Locksmiths were used to enter vacant homes, according to LaRose. One of the first steps was to use a combustible gas indicator to make sure there was no natural gas in the air, he said.

The NPU crew mainly worked in areas that didn’t have electricity so they used flashlights and floodlights to work at night to go into basements, inspect the air for leaks and turn off meters, LaRose said.

The NPU crew dealt with about 200 meters a day, LaRose estimated.

Besides helping in an emergency, NPU’s crew, which included newer employees, was able to get experience in a few days that would normally take months, making NPU a stronger, more effective utility, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

The effort was the first time in at least decades that NPU sent out natural gas crews in response to a mutual aid request, according to LaRose.

NPU typically responds to two or three mutual aid calls a year related to power outages, he said.

NPU sent mutual aid crews and equipment to Puerto Rico, Florida and the US Virgin Islands in 2017 and 2018 in response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, earning the utility commendations from the American Public Power Association.