On September 13th, 2018 the City of Lawrence Massachusetts, along with the neighboring communities of Andover and North Andover, experienced a natural gas disaster, which is being described as the largest disaster of its kind in our Nation’s history. This incident was the result of the over pressurization of a low pressure gas main, resulting in explosions and structure fires in these three communities. The Dispatch Centers of Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover were immediately inundated with hundreds of frantic 911 calls from terrified residents, as the smell of gas and clouds of smoke filled the air. The City of Lawrence alone received five hundred and fifty-six (556) calls between 4:10 PM and 8:00 PM. The Town of North Andover received roughly 198 911 calls in the initial moments of the incident. The Town of Andover received over 300 calls for service during the initial hours of the event. The men and women of these three police departments immediately responded without hesitation to this unprecedented disaster, doing what was asked of them without concern for their own safety. As Chiefs, we were tasked with coordinating the immediate evacuation of all residents as the fires began and continued to spread with no end in sight. Entire neighborhoods were filled with terrified residents, leaving their homes with just the clothes on their backs, as the magnitude and danger of this disaster remained unknown for a period of time. The three Chiefs immediately called and spoke to each other to determine the scope and magnitude of the event. The Chiefs, after determining the proximate caused was gas related, had officers on the roads and in cruisers begin to use their public address systems to tell people to get out of their houses. Cruisers drove through the affected area warning residents to rally at local evacuation sites. During the initial hour of the event, local fire apparatus was tied up at fire after fire. Police officers were tasked with locating other structure fires and alerting central dispatch. It was at this time that a call was made to Rockingham County New Hampshire for assistance. This is something that has never happened before.
As the situation was unfolding, an incident command location was established immediately adjacent to Interstate 495 and Route 114 at the borders of the three neighboring communities. As Chiefs, we immediately realized that an emergency of this size would require a significant amount of law enforcement personnel, far greater than that which was available in all three communities combined. As a result, we collectively established a safety plan utilizing the Massachusetts State Police and the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). The Council is made up of sixty (65) communities and Sheriff’s Departments from Northeastern Massachusetts. NEMLEC provided personnel as well as additional communications and command capabilities to aide in the implementation of a constantly evolving safety plan. The Massachusetts State Police provided similar assets as well as providing helicopters to oversee the entire operation.
At the command post, the three Chiefs sat in a meeting with the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the State Fire Marshall, Fire Chiefs and the two town managers and the Mayor of the City of Lawrence. Also present were members of MEMA, the Columbia Gas. The meeting focused on turning off residential and business gas meters, as well as shutting down the power.
As it was deemed necessary for safety reasons to shut down the power grid, a mass evacuation of the disaster zone was implemented. This required closing all exits from the highways and blocking all secondary entrances to the zone, while still allowing people to safely evacuate the area. Following the evacuation, the next essential task was to provide safety and security in the disaster zone which, with the exception of strategically placed temporary lighting, was in total darkness. Officers also were teamed with firefighters and Columbia Gas personnel to begin the arduous task of shutting down every gas meter in the affected area, approximately 8500 meters in total. This was done in all three communities well into the night and early morning. Massive amounts of police, fire, EMS, and gas company personnel were used to complete this task. As daylight broke, the plan required an avenue for law enforcement to assist residents in temporarily returning home to gather medication and other essential items. This effort was carried out with assistance of buses provided by the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Throughout the first two nights where power was turned off, cruisers from all over Massachusetts arrived to patrol the affected areas. Cruisers maintained a visible presence to all those still in the area, both residents and potential criminal elements saw a cruiser on every block all through the nights. These efforts continued for two (2) days until the power was restored on day three (3) of the event. As the evacuation order was lifted, law enforcement personnel assisted residents with the safe return to their homes, and continue to maintain the visible presence giving people a sense of safety and peace of mind..
As each of the affected communities attempted to return to a sense normalcy, it became clear that there would be an unprecedented amount of road construction underway simultaneously in all three communities. Once again, this required another adaption of the safety plan that would allow for the utilization of law enforcement personnel from Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, as needed on a day-to-day basis. The three Chiefs quickly contacted NiSource and established a work agreement for the use of police officers in the work zones related to this incident. This was required to ensure the safety of motorists and pedestrians as they tried to navigate through neighborhoods in which virtually every street was affected. As alternative housing locations were established throughout the three communities, a law enforcement presence was maintained. Both of these facets of the plan are continuing to this very day.
The overwhelming cooperation, collaboration, and professionalism of all law enforcement personnel involved from the outset of this incident until this very day has been simply amazing. While no amount of training or preparation could have adequately prepared our three communities for this disaster, this is without question one of the finest hours for the Massachusetts law enforcement community. In closing, it is important to note that none of these highlighted law enforcement successes would have obtainable without the support and understanding of the residents who we are sworn to serve.