Mass. gas company to consider funding extra firefighters after disaster
Lawrence Fire Department Chief Brian Moriarty has suggested Columbia Gas should pay $1.1 million for an extra engine company to work around the clock
By Jill Harmacinski
LAWRENCE, Mass. — Just before noon Monday, the Fire Department received an emergency call about "an odor of gas coming from the basement" of a Broadway business.
No fire was found, but the call was just one of hundreds of gas-related complaints last year in the city.
Fire Chief Brian Moriarty expects such calls will continue in the new year in the wake of the Sept. 13 Merrimack Valley gas disaster, and has suggested Columbia Gas should pay $1.1 million for an extra engine company to work in South Lawrence around the clock.
"Because of the gas crisis people are more nervous and they are going to be calling us," Moriarty said. "People are scared and they are going to call us."
Columbia Gas on Monday issued a statement saying the company is willing to discuss the request for 2019.
"Columbia Gas remains committed to the Greater Lawrence area. We are working with state and local officials to finalize a comprehensive plan for the next restoration phase. We appreciate the ongoing support from area first-responders and welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue in ongoing discussions with fire chiefs," said the statement distributed by Scott Person, Columbia Gas spokesperson.
The extra engine company would be comprised of a captain, three lieutenants and 12 firefighters, Moriarty said.
Moriarty's request has support from Mayor Daniel Rivera and District F City Councilor Marc Laplante, who lives in South Lawrence and temporarily lost gas service to his Durso Avenue home during the gas disaster.
Laplante said making sure Lawrence residents are safe is "mission one."
"The additional calls for service for gas leaks is creating a burden on our city and our firefighters. ... Our taxpayers must not bear the price for this safety layer because of the Columbia Gas incident on Sept. 13," Laplante said.
In an interview last week, Rivera said he supports adding the 16 firefighters on a short-term basis “if Columbia Gas will pay.”
“One year seems right,” Rivera said.
Lawrence firefighters in 2018 responded to 7,484 emergency calls, up from 6,701 similar calls in 2017, Moriarty said.
On Sept. 13, 2018, an over-pressurized gas line caused dozens of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. One person was killed, many other people were injured, and gas service was cut off to 8,600 customers.
While service has been restored to most of those customers, recovery efforts are expected to continue into 2019 and beyond — including repairing more than 70 miles of roads Columbia Gas had to dig up to replace its gas lines.
Since the disaster, which initially forced temporary evacuations, additional firefighters have been working on the south side of the city, including a deputy fire chief who’s been assigned to just that area daily. Those extra costs, to be borne by Columbia Gas, have yet to be determined, officials have said.
From Sept. 17 to Dec. 28, Moriarty said Lawrence crews received 213 calls about gas leaks and 37 carbon monoxide incidents.
There were 15 building fires but the blazes were quickly knocked down using the extra manpower available in the city, he said.
In South Lawrence, millions of dollars in repair work is now needed due to gas line replacement.
“I believe that the road construction/paving that will take place in the coming warm weather will have a great impact on our community, increasing our response times and placing a greater risk on our already strained community,” Moriarty wrote in the recent letter to Rivera.
The additional engine company would be located at the South Broadway fire station.
Earlier this month, after the gas restoration deadline of Dec. 16, officials said more than 7,500 residential and business meters have gas service restored; more than 18,000 pieces of gas equipment and appliances have been replaced; 20,000 damaged pieces of gas equipment and appliances have been removed and disposed of; 44 miles of pipeline have been replaced; and $78 million have been paid out in claims.
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