A gas line was punctured at a construction project next to our home, yesterday. For the purpose of this post, the full details of the incident don’t matter as much as the developer’s handling of the situation, both in the moment and in an email exchange after the incident.

The handling of any life threatening incident—during and after—is critical. During the incident there are safety concerns, logistics, safety concerns, effective communication, and, did I mention safety concerns? After the incident there is a clean-up effort that includes closing the loop by communicating humility and a path to improvement.

The developer more or less failed at both stages.

To be fair, their protocols for protecting their workers and the site during the incident likely worked very well; there appears to have been no injuries. Where they failed is their disregard for the safety of neighbours. Site management had no alert mechanism in place, nor did workers take it upon themselves to evacuate neighbouring homes even as they walked past those homes to their own safety one block further away. One home immediately across the street from the site was evacuated. Ultimately, twenty or more neighbours were displaced from their homes for four hours, with no injuries.

Where the developer failed after the incident was in its response to concerns the leadership team ought to have anticipated, and those specifically expressed in a blunt email (full disclosure: that email was from me). They attempted to dull criticisms by detailing the sequence of events, blaming a subcontractor, apologizing for (and only for) not contacting us  (about what, they don’t specify), and writing that they “continue to be compassionate and acutely aware of the concerns” associated with a project like theirs.

A professional colleague with whom I discussed this exchange suggested that this is a great opportunity to pitch a possible response.

Example effective response

Dear Mark:

Thank you very much for taking the time to organize and send your concerns to me. I appreciate that this was a stressful and frustrating experience for all of our site neighbours. No doubt your words represent the consensus opinion of today’s events.

You are right about our handling of the safety of our neighbours. A gas line rupture can be incredibly dangerous. While we looked after the safety of our people and our site, we ought to have known that having our people evacuate neighbouring homes on their own way to safety was the right thing to do, even if there was no immediate danger, until Ottawa Fire Services arrived and took control of the area. Neighbours shouldn’t have to come to us to find out why gas has been filling their homes for several minutes and ask if they are in danger. This represents a deficiency in our emergency protocols that I assure you will be addressed.

While you didn’t mention it in your email, I imagine that everyone who was displaced from their homes incurred expenses to keep themselves comfortable during the incident—coffee, lunch, etc. We will approach each home that was evacuated and deliver $50/person as a per diem expense payment. This seems like the absolute least we can do for having disrupted people’s workdays and personal plans.

I am sorry for saying that your home was “accidentally evacuated,” particularly since, as you pointed out, that message contradicted direction from Ottawa Fire Services.

Further, I am sorry for the stress and frustration caused by the incident and how we handled it. As you noted, we did commit to being good neighbours. Yesterday, we failed to live up to those words. I hope you and our other neighbours will afford us the opportunity to learn from the incident and improve our processes to ensure our neighbours’ safety has the same degree of attention as our own.

I commit to providing you an update on our revised incident procedures on November 17.



[Featured photo: yep it’s broken uploaded to Flickr by Bruce Denis, CC by-nc-nd]