Drop (the ducks), cover and wait… Stock up on enough food, water and medicine for at least a week… Watch out for gas escaping – oops. What do you do about a gas leak? What can you do? Well, let’s start by looking at three incidents.
Firstly – It’s easy to deal with a gas leak in your home, business, or apartment where the leak is on your side of the meter. Just turn off the gas with a simple wrench. But in more serious earthquakes, the chances of an underground fracture occurring is a major concern and cannot be dealt with easily.
second – Some communities have very old infrastructures that are more vulnerable than new ones. At the 1994 Northridge CA Earthquake, the mobile home community suffered several underground breaks. The gas seeped through cracks in streets, lawns, and under homes.
Residents trying to flee suddenly found their cars igniting gas with catalytic converters on their exhaust systems. The fires spread to homes. The managers struggled for about an hour trying to cut off the gas supply to the park, but were unable to do so.
No representative from the gas company came to their rescue and the entire community was consumed by flames. Some systems are so old and fragile, they can break aftershock or no shock at all.
third – The recent major gas explosion in San Bruno, Northern California, didn’t need an earthquake to break. It was an old system, which was increasingly overburdened, and seemed to be poorly maintained. It took PG&E (the largest facility in California) an hour and a half to shut off the gas! The loss of life and property is a tragic testament to a problem facing thousands of communities across the country.
Where was the fire department?
So where was the local fire department in the last two examples? In neither case were they able to cut off the gas. First of all, they don’t have the special equipment or keys to open the gas valve caps and turn off the gas. Perhaps most importantly, in many cases they don’t even know where the local community’s gas main is located. think about it. Even if they could turn off the gas, they wouldn’t know where to look.
The situation is particularly complicated by the fact that there are not enough qualified gas company representatives to cover all the communities they serve at the same time… This is further complicated by the difficulties these crews are likely to face after a major disaster.
Whose responsibility is the gas valve?
Part of this problem stems from the “turf” location of the various gas companies. They insist that managing the gas supply is their responsibility and requires special knowledge and training. And their arguments are not without merit. Managing the gas supply to hundreds of neighborhoods is a “balance”. If you shut down one or two major sites, how does the resulting increase in pressure on other communities equal? The complexity and cost of restarting gas at individual sites after sectional shutdowns should not be overlooked.
What can you do?
There is not much you can do to alleviate the situation. But, at the very least, you can lobby for greater communication between your local fire station and the gas utility that serves your community. And if your community, business, or apartment complex has a private gas system, there will likely be a line feed to it, with a separate shut-off valve. Make sure local fire station personnel know where this shutdown is and how to turn it off in a true emergency.
Knowledge is power!
In other words, make sure you and the first responders in your community are fully informed. And be sure to inquire with your gas company about the age and condition of the gas supply infrastructure in your community. The more you and the local firefighters know, the safer you’ll be.