The Merrimack Valley Gas Crisis: ‘The Day That Wouldn’t End’

On September 13, 2018, the Lawrence (MA) Fire Department experienced calls for numerous simultaneous fires in the city. I responded to Lawrence from the neighboring city of Haverhill. While en route, I monitored numerous incoming calls. Lawrence uses a 10-alarm card with predesignated companies for each alarm: Three pumps and a ladder are designated for each alarm, up to 10 alarms. They go in concentric circles around our town. I knew we would not be getting much help from the south, since the neighboring communities of Andover and North Andover also were having numerous fires, and I didn’t want to order additional assistance for each alarm, so I told fire alarm (our dispatcher) to use the 10-alarm card as needed to get at least one company to each incident and to request aid from the cities and towns to our north, since the southern communities would probably be assisting Andover and North Andover. I further requested that if there were more trucks than calls, Level 2 staging be set up at Route 114 at the Showcase Cinemas parking lot, which is large and was vacant.

The fire and explosion on Chickering Street caused one death and three injuries. Rescue workers assess and attempt to extricate the victim in the auto. (Photos by Kevin D. White unless otherwise noted.)

(1) The fire and explosion on Chickering Street caused one death and three injuries. Rescue workers assess and attempt to extricate the victim in the auto. (Photos by Kevin D. White unless otherwise noted.)

A call came in for a building explosion on Chickering Road, which I assigned to the deputy chief on duty. Since I was almost on Salem Street, I took the calls in the Salem Street area; there seemed to be more calls in that area at the time. I stopped at Salem Street to check on a few reported basement fires. Engine 6 was there. The captain and a firefighter were in the basement shutting off gas to the boilers; it seemed as if those homes were under control.

I moved up to an apartment building on Salem Street with a reported basement fire. A lieutenant and a firefighter were there. The lieutenant advised that they had shut off the gas and the situation seemed to be remedied.

Emergency medical technicians and paramedics are packaging the patient to be moved to the ambulance.

(2) Emergency medical technicians and paramedics are packaging the patient to be moved to the ambulance.

Then, a firefighter at the gas work site at Salem and South Union Streets radioed that it seemed as though there was some type of overpressurization. He advised that he almost got killed but was not hurt, the fire department could not shut down the gas, and the gas company supervisors were en route. All seemed to be under control. The gas was shut off at the apartment building.

While I was still at Salem Street, Engine 5 reported a working fire on Springfield Street, one street over. I responded to that scene. While en route (only a block or two away), companies again reported gas fires in basements and boiler and furnace issues. It seemed that at every call, the firefighters were being sent to neighbors’ houses or residents were coming up and asking them to check their houses. If the houses weren’t on fire or did not experience a boiler explosion, the furnace was the prevalent problem. There were so many of these instances that we were unable to document many of these addresses as individual calls.

When I arrived at Springfield Street, heavy smoke was showing. A lieutenant had a line deployed from the apparatus and was attempting to protect the exposures on the Delta side of the building. Another lieutenant, recalled from being off duty, was forcing entry and making searches. Fire was visible on the second floor.

The Springfield Street fire. (Photo by 2011Stormphotography.)

(3) The Springfield Street fire. (Photo by 2011Stormphotography.)

Wedgewood Road: Firefighters regroup outside to take up defensive positions. (Photo by RickNohlMedia.com.)

(4) Wedgewood Road: Firefighters regroup outside to take up defensive positions. (Photo by RickNohlMedia.com.)

Brookfield Street: A firefighter climbs a ladder to attempt to ventilate the fire building. (Photo by SmokeShowingPhotography.com.)

(5) Brookfield Street: A firefighter climbs a ladder to attempt to ventilate the fire building. (Photo by SmokeShowingPhotography.com.)

Diamond Street: The Lawrence Task Force chief radios command, citing conditions from the rear of the building.

(6) Diamond Street: The Lawrence Task Force chief radios command, citing conditions from the rear of the building.

Springfield Street: Established Command

I established command and ordered a full first-alarm assignment as soon as it was available. Listening to the radio and city transmission, I determined this was a gas overpressure event in the South Lawrence area. All companies were assigned to perform rescues, if needed, and shut down the gas supply immediately. Recognizing that we were not going to save this building, I ordered companies out of the building and to go defensive and protect the exposures. In addition, I requested that two lieutenants and one firefighter from the Fire Prevention Department go to the central station to get the spare pump and bring it to Springfield Street. In the meantime, I assigned an off-duty C-MED dispatcher to list on my command board all the calls and the trucks responding. Before long, we had approximately 30 calls.

Size-Up Factors

The Springfield Street structure was a 2½-story Type 5 (wood-frame) building with approximately eight apartments. Visible heavy fire was on the second floor and was spreading to the attic space. Heavy smoke was emanating from all eaves. Crew members were inside attempting to search and remove victims and attack the fire. Resources were severely limited. I ordered all crew members to vacate the building and begin setting up for a defensive attack.

I also was factoring the size of the event citywide: We had approximately 30 to 40 active incidents, and the number was climbing; no reasonable end was in sight. There were three confirmed building fires and one explosion with entrapment. The gas company was en route. This incident appeared to be contained to the south side of Lawrence and into North Andover and Andover. Our resources were depleted, and mutual aid was being taxed and depleted faster than it could arrive. People were stopping apparatus in the streets telling firefighters that their houses were on fire.

Initial Radio Report

My initial radio report as I entered Lawrence was insignificant relative to the overall picture. The report I gave at the first working fire on Springfield Street in Lawrence was as follows: “I have a working fire and need a first-alarm assignment. I have numerous gas issues in South Lawrence. All companies are to shut down gas and make rescues if needed.”

The continuing radio reports instructed all members to remain calm and advised that this was a long-term event and would necessitate that all members handle calls alone. They were instructed to limit radio traffic, acknowledge the address, handle the incident, call only if they needed help, and advise when all was clear so they could go to the next address. The companies were also instructed to perform rescues if necessary, shut off the gas, and then fight the fire. In addition, I contacted fire alarm dispatch early on while at Springfield Street to call District 15, regional control, and get two structural task forces to respond to Lawrence. I also accepted an offer from New Hampshire to provide a third task force. The task forces were to stage at the Route 114 cinema parking lot.

This house on Jefferson Street belonged to an on-duty Lawrence police officer.

(7) This house on Jefferson Street belonged to an on-duty Lawrence police officer.

Resources Requested

The gas company was asked to respond and shut down all gas to South Lawrence.

As already mentioned, fire prevention personnel were asked to bring a spare engine to Springfield Street.

We requested a ladder since the full box assignment was not available because of the number of calls.

The task forces requested earlier arrived within the first hours of the incident and remained in the city until 0700 hours the next morning. The mobilization chiefs had determined that the incident would require the services of the task forces for a few days. The task forces were rotated in every 12 hours beginning at 0700 hours on September 14 until 0700 hours September 17.

More than 339 apparatus and 553 firefighters were employed in the four-day event.

A command post was set up at the Showcase Cinemas parking lot on Route 114, where Level 1 staging and check-in had been established. The Level 2 staging area was at the shopping plaza on the southern side of Route 114 in North Andover. On Saturday, Level 1 staging was moved to the NA Registry parking lot, slightly north of the Showcase Cinemas plaza, which allowed for safer apparatus operations. On day 3, Level 1 staging was moved back to the cinema parking lot.

Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

The Lawrence General Hospital operates the emergency ambulance service for the city. It was activated early in the incident. Its paramedic supervisor became the EMS Sector chief. He set up all the EMS and on-scene rehabs. At one time, approximately 60 ambulances were in the staging area; half of them were advanced life support. Calls for EMS from outside the emergency scene were dispatched from the staging area. Mutual-aid ambulances handled many of these calls.

Incident Command

I was the citywide incident commander. I had the C21 car at other scenes initially. As chief officers arrived in the city, they were assigned working fires. I then reported to the command post at Showcase Cinemas, where the police chief, mayor, Department of Public Works director, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency director, and state fire marshal were. Unified command was instituted at that point; and we gave out Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) notifications to evacuate homes, turn off their gas if they knew how, and call 911. Numerous IPAWS notifications went out during the first few hours. Residents were asked to evacuate South Lawrence as we shut off the power. They were instructed to evacuate to the north since the area to the south also had the same situation. The police coordinated the shutting down of access to South Lawrence at all exits, roads, and bridges leading in. Unified command continued throughout the next four days of the major incident and was revised for the recovery phase of the crisis.

Strategy and Tactics

Our first set of objectives for the first few hours was to perform necessary rescues/evacuations of the involved buildings, shut down gas, contain the fire to the buildings of origin, and limit the risk to firefighters and civilians. Once the gas was shut off, it took a number of hours for it to bleed down to zero. We initiated a system for checking every structure known to have gas for occupants and carbon monoxide and to shut down the gas meter. The utility company did not have this process organized well in the first 24 hours; we could not get the appropriate information or a gas contractor to help to properly effect the task. The governor of Massachusetts eventually declared this an emergency and gave control of this phase to NiSource, which dramatically improved the situation. Gas contractors paired with a fire company and a police officer. By Saturday night, the power was being turned back on in the affected areas.

Problems Encountered

During the first four hours, there was a massive number of incoming incidents, high-pressure gas, and limited resources. Once adequate resources began to arrive in the communities, we were able to bring all the fires under control. The major problem from that point on was the inability of the utility company to provide adequate documentation of the addresses affected and enough resources to begin the safety process of entering all involved properties to check for victims, signs of carbon monoxide (CO), and natural gas and to shut off the meter and electricity if needed. The draining off of gas pressure in the line was extremely slow.

Under Control

The Springfield fire was under control within an hour after evacuation of the companies and attacking the fire with heavy water appliances. The major fires and serious emergencies were under control in approximately six hours. From that point on, planning was begun to ensure gas meters were off, citizens were evacuated and safe, and no CO existed in the properties so that power could be restored. The first four days, we completed the safety checks and evacuation of all the residents. Replacing the gas lines and all the gas-operated appliances in residences took months. The gas was finally turned on to the majority of residences on December 16. Many furnaces and boilers had to be repaired; it would have taken too much time to replace them, since it was winter. In May of this year, the gas company began replacing the furnaces and boilers. The volume of work and the age and condition of the buildings caused the repair process to take longer than was first estimated.

Additional Information

During the Springfield incident, there were some civilian and firefighter injuries. A civilian complained of shortness of breath and chest pain; an ambulance was called to the scene. The patient was hospitalized and expected to make a full recovery. The lack of sufficient resources and the dangerous fire condition necessitated evacuation of the fire structure. A firefighter fell backward down the stairs and injured his back and other body areas. A captain injured his knee. Both were transported to local hospitals for treatment. Off-duty personnel filled the positions of the injured firefighters.

During the repowering of South Lawrence, we were called to a three-alarm apartment building fire. Although there was concern that the fire may have been related to the gas situation, we knew that the gas was turned off and did not share that concern. The problem was that residents were not yet back in their apartments and the fire had gotten a head start before anyone noticed it. When we arrived, heavy smoke was in the 30-unit apartment building and fire was venting out of an apartment on the second floor, side C. We vigorously attacked the fire with an interior offensive operation. Numerous companies rapidly responded because the task forces were still in the city. A deputy chief from a task force fell through a floor and fractured his arm. He was transported to Lawrence General and later transferred to a Boston hospital, where he underwent extensive surgery. He returned to work a few months later and made a full recovery. Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion at the scene and remained on duty. The cause of the fire was an electrical short in the ceiling of the first floor.

Lessons Learned and Reinforced

Communications. There was a need for a communications policy that specified the limited topics that should be discussed on the radio. Communication with a single channel for dispatch and scene operations is not compatible with such a major operation. Unfortunately, radio frequencies are not abundant or cheap. Such a policy should reduce radio traffic down to the absolutely necessary only: Acknowledge the address, call if you need help, let us know when you are clear. That is all.

Call for help early. The reflex time of a major mobilization of units to such a large incident is not fast. Call for help.

An event of this magnitude is not quick. You will be a while; plan on work shifts that people can do for a long time. This event is now in its sixth month. Forty-three miles of streets were dug up to make pipe repairs. The parks were converted to trailer parks, damaging the property; winter stopped road repairs until spring; and many homes were damaged and needed repairs.

Stay on top of the people employed to carry out the repairs. We had some issues with contractors not communicating with the fire department when setting up temporary heating systems. Check in with them often. We created a fire chief safety group with the fire marshal’s office and explained rules we established concerning which space heaters and hot plates would be allowed. When the electricity failed to meet standards, the residents went out on their own and purchased generators and space heaters that clearly were labeled not for residential use.

Communicate with the public often and with as many forms of social media as possible. People were hungry for answers and wanted them “yesterday.” We did not have mass notification software; we do now.

 

BRIAN F. MORIARTY, a second-generation firefighter, has been the chief of the Lawrence (MA) Fire Department since 2015. Previously, he was a 29-year veteran of the Haverhill (MA) Fire Department, where he attained every rank up to deputy chief. He served five years in the U.S. Air Force as a firefighter in New Mexico and the United Kingdom and was honorably discharged in 1985 with an associate degree in fire science. He attended Northeastern University’s paramedic program and worked in Lawrence as a hospital-based paramedic until 2015, when he joined the fire department. He obtained a B.A. degree from the Rivier University in Nashua, NH. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

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