Cornelius gas leak sparks one-woman safety crusade
Deborah Manso was making supper Monday, Oct. 9, at her Cornelius home in the area of North Fourth Avenue and Davis Street when a recorded emergency call came in from the Cornelius Fire Department: There was a natural gas leak in the neighborhood. She needed to leave the house immediately and go to the WalMart parking lot on Adair Street.
Remembering a recent fatal explosion from a gas leak in downtown Portland, Manso gathered up her three children still living at home (ages 20, 17 and 13) and rushed to her car. But through the windows of the homes across the street, she noticed neighbors cooking and watching TV.
Nervous about staying too long in the area, Manso nonetheless ran and banged on their doors to warn about the leak. None of them had gotten the emergency call.
"They were like 'Oh my gosh, we didn't know. We heard nothing,'" Manso said. Grateful, they followed her away from their homes.
The leak was fixed in the next few hours and the evacuees returned home safely.
Manso, 64, later learned that her home wasn't really in the target area and had somehow been erroneously contacted.
"When we did the notification, for whatever reason it went way too big," said Matt Johnston, public information officer for Cornelius Fire. "It went a mile radius instead of one-eighth of a mile."
But Manso was still troubled that her neighbors hadn't been warned like she had. So she went to the Cornelius Fire Department — where the call had come from — and asked Johnston why her neighbors hadn't gotten the warning call.
It turns out the message only goes to land lines, which few people have. But people without landlines can go to wccca.com or publicalerts.org to sign up for Emergency Alerts — sometimes called Reverse 911 — via cellphone calls, emails or texts, which will forward warnings of everything from gas leaks to water leaks to floods, tornados and more.
Local firefighters have been thinking about doing a promotional campaign to get that number out to the public and solicit more signups. But Manso beat them to it.
From fires to felons
In the actual gas leak area on Oct. 9, firefighters and Washington County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door alerting people.
Gas leaks also have more intensive notification, Johnston said, because "we're going to be coming to your house anyway to check gas levels...We don all our protective equipment."
If an absent homeowner returned after public-safety personnel had already knocked on their door it wouldn't matter, Johnston said, because "We're still in the area. We don't leave until the gas is shut off."
For a hazardous materials spill, the correct response is the opposite of evacuation, Johnston said: You need to stay inside your house, close the windows and doors, and turn off air and heating systems.
Even in cases where deputies or firefighters are knocking on homeowners' doors, there are still "huge reasons" to sign up for Reverse 911, Johnston said.
"Let's say you're not home and you have kids at home and you've taught them not to answer the door or the phone," he said. "If you're out, you can still get a call on your cellphone and let them know."
For more remote residents, "maybe there's a forest fire coming toward your house and you're not home," he said.
Business owners might want to know if a gas or water leak occurs after hours.
The service will also alert people if there's a potentially dangerous criminal being hunted in a particular neighborhood.
Johnston said it might be time to team up with Public Information Officer Dave Nemeyer of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue for another campaign to get residents to sign up for Reverse 911.
'A wonderful thing'
Meanwhile, Manso started her own personal crusade. She visited Nemeyer in Forest Grove and picked up some information cards about how to sign up for the emergency alert.
And at 9:30 a.m. that Saturday, Oct. 14, she began knocking on doors in Cornelius, passing out the cards to residents and promoting the Code Red alerts.
Of about 80 homes Manso visited, 60 people spoke with her and only five had received the emergency call about the gas leak, she said. Two people had no phones at all so she made sure their neighbors would alert them if any emergency calls came through.
By 6:30 p.m., Manso was exhausted. "I just spent nine hours walking door to door," she said, realizing she couldn't possibly get word to everyone who needed to know about this warning system.
So she called her pastor and asked him to alert fellow church members. She told her 10 children, who spread the word via social media. And she contacted the News-Times.
"We just got a trial run," Manso said of the gas leak, which served as a wakeup call in which nobody was hurt.
"That's a wonderful thing," she said.