It was April 12, one month after the Great East Japan Earthquake. We visited Mikamine Park in Sendai’s Taihaku Ward, known as a scenic spot for cherry trees (sakura). While the trees had yet to bloom, in the park we saw a large tour bus with a Yamagata Prefecture license plate. Posted on the windshield of this bus, which appeared empty, was a paper reading “Chugoku/Shikoku Company, Squad No. 1-2.” It sounded like it came from the Japan Self-Defense Forces, but that was not the case. The passengers from this bus were employees of Hiroshima Gas and they had come to recover Sendai’s town gas system. The bus acted as a base camp on this day for the company’s Valve Opener Unit.
According to Okazawa Keisuke, Manager of Public Relations at Osaka Gas who came to assist The Japan Gas Association (JGA) with public relations work, “The town gas industry has a close bond under which operators nationwide help operators in disaster-hit regions.” JGA, comprised of town gas operators nationwide, drafted its “Guidelines on Relief Actions for Earthquakes, Floods and States of Emergency” after the 1968 Tokachi Earthquake, establishing a system of mutual assistance among its members.
In the Sendai Gas Bureau’s service area, 311,144 homes were subject to recovery action due to the earthquake’s impact. Town gas undergoes heat adjustments and odor is added at the manufacturing plant, after which it is delivered to each household via gas pipes as its pressure is lowered from high to medium to low.
The procedure for recovering gas service consists of (1) closing gas valves, (2) repairing gas pipes and (3) opening the valves. An advance mission sent from JGA entered Sendai on March 13, and some additional gas operators joined on the 18th to work on closing valves.
Bus used as basecamp for the
Valve Opener Unit ?WEDGE
Meanwhile, the Port of Sendai, where a port plant had served as a manufacturing base, had been damaged by the tsunami. The Sendai Gas Bureau had been relying on gas supplied from two routes, pipelines from Niigata and liquefied natural gas (LNG) ships transported to the port plant, and the latter supply had been lost.
Inspections found no damage in the Niigata pipelines, so the Bureau was able to supply gas from the pipelines to the port plant on the 23rd. With a gas supply source secured, all that was left was to repair gas pipes and open valves. The Bureau sent requests via JGA to gas operators to send what are called Recovery Action Units, which came from around the country and joined in the work.
When it received a request, Hiroshima Gas immediately notified employees it had picked out in advance (according to Kimura Kazushige, Director of its Technical Sales Division). The quick response with advance preparation is a notable characteristic of this industry.
On the 24th, 42 Repair Unit members that would fix gas pipes left Hiroshima on the 24th, and the 57-member Valve Opener Unit that would visit homes and open gas valves followed on the 25th. For a day and a half, the Repair Unit drove trucks carrying heavy machinery and repair materials and equipment, only stopping en route in Toyama to sleep, while the Valve Opener Unit took 12 hours transferring from bullet train to bus, and all 99 members arrived in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture where they would be lodged since lodging in central Sendai was not yet operable.
The Hiroshima Gas team left Tendo at eight every morning for the 90 minute to two-hour journey to their worksites in Sendai.
We were granted permission to join Kurisu Daisuke, Supervisor of the Professional Energy Sales Division and a member of the Valve Opener Unit, in his valve-opening rounds a 15-minute walk from the Mikamine Park base camp. Young Kurisu was chosen because of his vast experience compared to his peers. The Valve Opener Unit would park its basecamp (bus) close to the worksite so the members could return for lunch and other needs. Work on site usually lasted until after 7 p.m.
Three to four members of the 57 valve openers assigned where their members would go. Nagata Masato, Supervisor of the Management Planning Office that guided us, explained, “Some members have to walk quite far to their worksites depending on where we park our base (bus). Some of them don’t come back at lunchtime since they want to open valves for as many homes as possible.”
We had Kurisu show us the map of his assigned area, which was marked in highlighter. We gasped at the number of markings as he said unconcerned, “It’s about 50 homes for today.” This would be fine if he could work through those 50 with no problems, but if there was no one at home he had to go back again later.
Kurisu rang the doorbell, saying, “I came to open the gas valves.” When the homeowner came out Kurisu first apologized. “Sorry to have kept you waiting for so long,” he said. Confirming the owner’s presence at the home, he first inspected the gas pipes using a hose he hangs around his neck. The hose is equipped with a pressure meter at one end to check for leaks.
Once he confirmed there were no gas leaks, he opened the gas valve under the gas meter that the valve closer team had closed after the earthquake to ensure safety.
Kurisu is quiet but his
demeanor brimmed with
desire to reopen gas for as
many homes as possible. ?WEDGE
With this done, Kurisu then entered the home and checked for any problems in the gas stovetop as the homeowner looked on intently. Beside the stovetop was a portable liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cooking stove that the house had been using since the earthquake. With everything checked, Kurisu turned the stovetop knob. After about two seconds of silence, a blue flame characteristic of town gas lit up. The homeowner’s face bloomed in a huge smile.
Following the kitchen, Kurisu headed to the bathroom. The homeowner asked, “Will we be able to take a bath tonight?” Kurisu smiled, “You can take one right now if you want.” The work to this point barely took 10 minutes. The owner offered tea and Kurisu politely refused and headed to the next home.
As we followed, there was one home where, as soon as Kurisu had finished his work and closed the entrance door behind him, there was a scream. It stunned us for a moment, but it was the shout of joy as the family rejoiced, “Great! We can take a bath now!”
Messages of appreciation from
citizens provided great
Some time past 1 p.m., Kurisu returned to Mikamine Park for lunch since his work was close to the base camp that day. We asked what he found difficult about the recovery work and he simply replied, “What could my hardship be compared to these people’s?” He recalled, “I was so happy when I went to a preschool and the children surrounded me saying, ‘The gas man is here!'” Finishing lunch in barely 10 minutes, Kurisu headed to his next site.
How an organization unites its many members
Most all recovery work finished on the 17th, five days after our visit and three days ahead of schedule, and the Recovery Action Unit held a disbandment ceremony. A total of 51 operators and a peak force of 4,200 from around the nation had taken part.
How does an organization direct and command this many people and move them fluidly? According to Okazawa from Osaka Gas, “It’s a hierarchical structure with a clear line of command. The general controls the entire division, captains head the companies, squad leaders lead the squads and team leaders assume responsibility for their areas. And with every member here with the strong wish of achieving recovery as soon as possible, the organization is united in its recovery work.”
Town gas operators, some as far back as 40 years ago, have experienced work with natural gas heat conversion where, much like the valve-opening procedures after an earthquake, they visited home after home opening the gas. This procedure had adopted an organizational structure that clearly defined line of command and responsibilities in each work area; and this experience came to use in recovery actions after the Great Hanshin Earthquake. “The keys to this organizational structure are the skill, experience, and leadership capacity of the leaders at each level; so companies usually don’t hesitate to assign their best members,” said Okasawa.
Kimura from Hiroshima Gas told us, “When young employees experience such work, they change.” Working in close contact with people suffering from a disaster strengthens their desire to deliver warmth as early as possible. Such sites where nationwide gas operators support each other are serving as training grounds for young gas technicians.
Translated from “Zenkoku kara atsumatta 4200 nin no seiei,” WEDGE, June 2011, pp. 28-29. (Courtesy of WEDGE, Inc.)