Stories and news from FortisBC

We make a big stink when it comes to investigating gas odour

July 6, 2020

20-001.23.5 FortisBC customer service technician repairs a gas meter

Go behind the scenes of our emergency operations

Long before I became a writer, I was a 911 operator for a large city police department. Yes, people call 911 for the obvious, like a bank robbery in progress. But they also call to complain about neighbours watering their lawns on the wrong day. Or, they call a non-emergency number a week after witnessing a robbery. Moral of the story? People don’t always understand what constitutes an emergency.

There should be no question however, when it comes to smelling gas in your home or business, or even when outside. It is an emergency and we want you to call us right away. FortisBC has a 24-hour emergency phone number (1-800-663-9911) for natural gas emergencies, such as smelling rotten eggs (what natural gas smells like when it leaks), but—akin to the robbery example above—do people actually call right away, or at all for that matter?

Gas leaks are extremely rare, so sometimes when people smell gas, they don’t think anything of it, or don’t realize it’s an emergency.  

“Occasionally people email us, which isn’t good as we can’t monitor our inbox constantly if we’re busy. Then again, we get people who call us and say they’ve been smelling gas for the past month,” says Crystal, a FortisBC dispatch coordinator.

“If you think you smell gas, either inside or outside your home, or out in public, call us or 911 right away.”

Crystal is one of more than a dozen FortisBC dispatch coordinators who, as well as working with our field technicians for day-to-day activities, dispatches emergency responses like gas odour, gas line damages and carbon monoxide incidents.

When we get a report about a gas smell, our goal is to have a field technician at the location within an hour—even if it’s the middle of the night. That’s because at FortisBC, safety is at the core of everything we do and if you smell gas, either inside or outside, we’ll send someone to investigate it, right away.

What happens if you smell gas inside your home or business

“If you smell natural gas inside your home, there’s no charge for one of our field technicians to attend* and investigate,” says Nicole, an emergency operations representative who handles emergencies not only for our core business, but also for our LNG facilities and transportation stations. “And we won’t leave until we determine the source of the odour. We’ll also check to make sure all your natural gas appliances are operating properly and use a gas odour detector to determine if any of the gas lines inside your home are leaking. If we do find a leak, we’ll mark it and then turn off the gas upstream of the leak,” she adds.

*Due to COVID-19, before entering a home, field technicians will ask customers if they’ve been in contact with anyone experiencing COVID-like symptoms, if anyone in the household is sick, or if anyone has recently travelled outside BC. As well, personal protective equipment appropriate for the situation will be put on before entering.

But because we don’t own the gas lines or equipment within a private home or business, we don’t repair them. Once we’ve shut the gas off and determined that it’s safe, we direct the customer to contact a gas contractor licensed with Technical Safety BC to make the repairs. You can find one through our Trade Ally Network

What to do if you smell gas outside your property or in public

What happens if someone smells gas outside their home, like in their driveway or by the gas meter?

“If you smell gas near your meter, or anywhere outside on your property, we attend as well,” says Nicole. “In the case of the meter, we’ll determine the source of the leak and repair or replace it. If we detect gas leaking from the service line running from the street to your premises, we’ll send out a construction crew to dig up the line and repair it, and then return your property to its original condition,” she added.

FortisBC construction crew repairs a natural gas line leak

FortisBC construction crew repairs a natural gas line leak.

Because meters and service lines belong to FortisBC, there’s no cost to customers to repair them. There’s one exception to this rule, however, in that if you hit and damage a gas service line on your property when digging or excavating, you may be liable for repair costs. “Sometimes folks are digging in their yards and bump the gas service line and cover it back up, not realizing they’ve caused a leak,” says Carmel, dispatch coordinator. “Days later they start smelling gas. But there’s an easy way to prevent hitting a gas line and that’s by clicking or calling BC 1 Call first to get underground gas and other utility line location information.”

The other type of gas odour calls we get are what we call ‘atmospheric.’ This could be someone driving or walking by a public area and smelling rotten eggs. “Sometimes we’ll get a flurry of calls from areas near mushroom farms or cow pastures. It depends on the activity at the location, the weather and the wind,” says Maria, dispatch coordinator. “But no matter, we go out to investigate to confirm 100 per cent that it’s not a gas leak.”

When in doubt, we send someone out!

One thing our dispatch coordinators and emergency representatives emphasized is that they want you to call, even if you’re not sure it’s a gas smell. “Perhaps the hesitation is people not being sure if what they’re smelling is gas and they don’t want to tie up resources for a wild goose chase. But we have a saying here: when in doubt, send someone out. As we’d much rather have a false alarm than an unavoidable accident,” says Nicole.

“We’re here for our customers and we want you to be safe in your home or business. Never hesitate to call our emergency number if you suspect you smell gas. But go outside first and then call us and stay outside until we arrive. If we go to investigate a gas odour call and no one is there, we have to turn the gas off at the meter to ensure the safety of the public.”

A rather sweet, but smelly false alarm

We do get a few false alarms. Occasionally the smell turns out to be a dead animal or sewer gas. A few years ago, Nicole says they got several gas odour calls from residents of an apartment building. “Our field technicians attended and chased the smell up and down hallways and finally it was determined that the smell was not a gas leak, but rather a durian,” she quipped. Durians are large, spiky, pungent tropical fruits, often described as smelling like sewer gas and yes, rotten eggs—just like natural gas!

Durian fruit

Durian fruit

Here’s what to do if you think you smell natural gas

Our motto is if you smell, or think you smell gas, act fast! And then follow these three steps:

  1. Stop what you're doing. Don't use your cellphone or landline, don’t smoke, light matches or operate electrical switches or create any other source of ignition.
  2. Go outside. As you exit, leave the door open behind you as well as any windows that may already be open.
  3. Call us. Once outside, call the FortisBC Emergency Line at 1-800-663-9911 (24 hours) or 911.

After you call us (Call! Don’t email.) wait outside for a FortisBC field technician to arrive. If you leave, they’ll have to turn the gas off at the meter, which will be rather inconvenient for you when you come home and find no natural gas for heat or hot water.

Egg

Remember this sage advice

  • Call our emergency line if you suspect a gas leak or other gas emergency. (Do NOT email us or message us on social media for gas emergencies). Someone is here to take your call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Follow the three steps above and wait outside for us to arrive to investigate the leak.
  • Remember, there is no charge for us to come to your home or business to check for a gas leak.
  • Don’t worry if you’re not sure if it’s an emergency. Safety is our top priority, better a false alarm, than a tragedy.

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