Demonstrating an emergency sends a strong message in ‘Pipetown’

John Aaron, wtop.com

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – A live demonstration of an all-too-common emergency left visitors to “Pipetown” with an important lesson.

“Off!” shouted a utility worker wearing goggles and a full protective suit. Thanks to his careful maneuvering, gas had stopped blowing out of a ruptured line in the ground.

Firefighters who were standing by assessed the situation before getting back on their engine and driving off. It was a big relief for an embarrassed “homeowner,” who had simply been digging a hole for a plant before finding herself in the middle of an emergency.

The drill at the Washington Gas training facility known as “Pipetown” in Springfield, Va., showcased how the utility works with fire crews, like the one from Fairfax County that was on hand, to keep residents safe. But it also had a more important message: most of these incidents can be avoided.

The live demonstration was part of an effort to raise awareness about safe digging and the need to dial 811. This weekend marks the 5-year anniversary of the nationwide 811 program.

“We’d like 811 to be as well-known as 911,” says Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “On average, about 20 deaths a year are associated with pipelines and a third of those are the result of people not calling 811.”

After calling 811, within two business days a worker will come out and mark off any underground utilities with spray paint.

“Red is power, orange is communications – either cable TV or telephone – blue is water, yellow is gas and green is sewer,” says Scott Brown, manager of Damage Prevention at Washington Gas, adding that digging should be done 24 inches from any colored lines.

He says Washington Gas, which serves Maryland, Virginia and the District, responds to about 600 incidents per year. Pipeline safety has gained national attention since a 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Ca., killed eight people.

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