PSE&G hosts emergency drill in Newark high-rise

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Firetrucks surrounded PSE&G’s gleaming high-rise headquarters in downtown Newark as an emergency drill unfolded Tuesday morning. PSE&G’s Joe Forline described the scenario.

“We’re going to have a forklift hit a gas meter set in the basement of the building, and that’s going to trigger a gas leak and an emergency response from PSE&G, police, fire.” said Forline. “In our drill here, we’re going to simulate a gas explosion, so that would be quite dangerous.”

Someone “calls in” the bogus gas leak. As a thousand employees stream from the 25-story tower, emergency responders must secure the building to ensure everyone’s out.

“The first priority is always life safety. What we want to do here is try and grab command here, stay cool, try and work out a strategic plan,” said Forline.

In about half an hour, the building’s clear. Next to a mobile fire division command center on Mulberry Street, PSE&G sets up its own incident command and emergency responders confer. Workers armed with gas detectors head toward the basement. A whiteboard keeps track of who’s inside.

A PSE&G workman confirmed the gas was turned off at 11:52 a.m., but that’s not the end of the exercise. It ramped up from there. Actually, it explodes.

The airhorn blast substitutes for an actual gas explosion. A real one would generate a 100 yard damage radius. Every day, PSE&G responds to 250 reports of gas leaks across New Jersey, most of them at residential locations. But recent high-rise disasters, like London’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire, underscore the need to prepare for these unique emergencies, especially as more office and apartment towers rise above city skylines.

“You know, we have Prudential who just built an office tower, we have Panasonic, so our firefighters and fire division practice each and every day,” said Anthony Ambrose, Newark’s public safety director. “But I think it’s important that the public and private partnerships exist because we can’t do it alone. The 600 firefighters can’t do it alone.”

Evaluators from around the region observe the unique exercise hoping for new insights. It’s over in an hour. A debriefing’s scheduled.

“That helps us determine if we had people in the right spot, if people were outside the area of influence and what we can do better next time,” said Forline.

As PSE&G employees head back to their cubicles, Forline warns folks to call 811 before digging, so they don’t hit a gas line — a real one.