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‘There are no false alarms’: Why this energy company will take calls at any time

[Getty Images].
[Getty Images].

When a FortisBC natural gas customer or a member of the public notices a funny smell and calls the 24-hour emergency line, customer service leader Sara Lasure is often on the other end.

 

Lasure has worked every shift in customer service during her years at FortisBC — including daytime, evening and graveyard shifts — and has seen her share of calls coming to the utility company’s 800 number.

 

“Often they will notice an odour they can’t identify in their home,” Lasure says. “People do get embarrassed. But there are no false alarms. From our company standpoint, every call needs investigating.”

Calls come to a dedicated line that’s staffed 24 hours a day. Callers talk to team members like Lasure first, and then, depending on the nature of the problem, she may forward the call to an emergency crew.

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The FortisBC line receives 25,000 emergency-related calls a year, 75 per cent of which are related to a rotten egg or sulphur-like odour. Customers also call because of a hissing noise coming from an appliance or pipes. No matter what the concern, Lasure says her team takes immediate action, even if the problem turns out to be something other than natural gas.

 

“We would always rather err on the side of caution and go out and investigate,” she says.

That’s why the company recommends contacting their emergency line at 1-800-663-9911 or calling 911, even if callers aren’t sure whether the smell is natural gas or something else, like rotting food. Lasure says it’s also better to call than to send a tweet or a Facebook message, because calls are picked up immediately.

The customer service team’s immediate goal is to ensure the caller’s safety. They take names and addresses in case the phone gets disconnected, so FortisBC’s emergency department has the contact information should they need to investigate.

Next, Lasure says, they ask callers a series of questions, including how long they’ve noticed the smell, what area of the home it’s coming from or if it’s coming from outside. “That will make a difference in how quickly we can get there, how severe the emergency is,” she explains.

Lasure has had some surprising conversations. “You get a call and people say, ‘I have this odour, I don’t know if it’s an emergency — it’s been going on for a while.’ When you probe a little, you realize it’s been going on for a year.”

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If the smell is outside, she tells callers to go inside, close doors and windows, and wait for a technician. If it’s coming from inside the home, people should go outside immediately and leave the door open behind them, as well as any windows that may already be open. It’s important not to flick light switches, use a lighter or do anything else that could possibly ignite natural gas on the way out.

READ MORE: Smell rotten eggs at home? Here’s what homeowners need to know

When technicians arrive, they will ask several COVID-19 screening questions and put on appropriate personal protective equipment before entering a home.

Crews then use a natural gas detector to check for gas odours. Even if the smell has disappeared, they can check the air for natural gas and carbon monoxide.

Investigating natural gas odours is like detective work, says Michelle Petrusevich, public safety manager for FortisBC. “It’s a bit of a discovery game.”

Problems can range from an unpleasant smell to a possible break in the gas line. Sometimes odours are caused by an appliance malfunction that needs to be resolved, and technicians will recommend getting it serviced. Other times, it’s an issue with a gas furnace or gas fireplace. If it’s a leak, technicians will mark it and switch off the gas upstream of the leak.

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FortisBC doesn’t own the natural gas lines or equipment within a private home or business, so company technicians don’t repair them.

It should be noted that it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to call a licensed technician to make necessary repairs.

READ MORE: ‘I kind of like the smell’: A behind-the-scenes look at FortisBC’s odour lab

The most difficult calls during the graveyard shift, in Lasure’s experience, are about beeping carbon monoxide detectors from people who are reluctant to address the problem or wait until morning to call.

“We are 24 hours for a reason. Delaying safety is never a good idea,” she says.

In those cases, she tells callers to wake sleeping family members and go outside to wait for FortisBC, even if it’s cold. Technicians will check the carbon monoxide levels in the home and recommend next steps.

Customer service staff often check back in on callers, too. “You feel a closeness to people, especially on the graveyard shift,” Lasure says. “You want to make sure they are okay and find out the outcome of the investigation.”

Once the customer service team identifies the problem, they will inform the fire department who will make a decision on whether homes or apartments should be evacuated.

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[Getty Images]
[Getty Images].
A gas leak near the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver several years ago, for example, garnered 70 calls in 20 minutes and required the evacuation of several apartment blocks. In the case of an emergency like that, Petrusevich says, people shouldn’t take it on themselves to warn neighbours, but wait for staff to assess the situation.

To minimize the chances of needing to make an emergency call, she recommends having gas appliances serviced regularly and scheduling an annual maintenance check by a licensed gas contractor.

 

In the end, most calls are not serious. “One of our technicians found a dead cat that had crawled into a crawl space,” Lasure says. “It wasn’t natural gas, but it had been there for a while.”

But it’s always better to make the call, she adds. “We want to know these things. Even if it turns out not to be gas, you are better off safe.”

For more information on natural gas odour and keeping your home safe, visit FortisBC. Plus, find out if you qualify for a rebate on maintenance checks of your gas appliances.

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