LAWRENCE — In the 100 days since the Merrimack Valley gas disaster, Lawrence firefighters have responded to more than 2,400 emergency calls in just that three-month plus span, said fire Chief Brian Moriarty.
"That's much higher than average," he said.
Moving into 2019, Moriarty expects increased calls about gas odors, gas leaks and carbon monoxide issues to continue in the city.
For that reason, Moriarty wants extra firefighters on duty around the clock in the new year.
He's asked Mayor Daniel Rivera for an extra engine company on the south side of the city — a captain, three lieutenants, and 12 firefighters — to work daily.
And he suggests Columbia Gas, the area's natural gas provider, should foot the estimated annual $1.1 million price tag.
"We didn't cause this problem. We just want to be safe," Moriarty said.
Rivera said he supports adding the 16 firefighters on a short term basis "if Columbia Gas will pay."
"One year seems right," said Rivera, in an interview this past week.
Officials have yet to discuss the matter with Columbia Gas, they said.
An over-pressurized gas line on Sept. 13 caused dozens of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. One person was killed in the disaster, which cut off gas service to 8,600 customers, killed one person and injured others.
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 gas 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.
However, what is clear is emergency calls to the fire department are up.
From Sept. 17 to Dec. 28, Moriarty said Lawrence crews received 213 calls about gas leaks and 37 carbon monoxide incidents.
"Both of those numbers are more than we usually have in a year," he said.
There were 15 building fires but the blazes were quickly knocked down using the extra manpower available in the city, he said.
"Staffing makes a difference and staffing is expensive," 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, at the gas restoration deadline on Dec. 16, officials said more than 7,500 residential and business meters had 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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