Firefighters warn against creative heating solutions in Newport

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NEWPORT, R.I (WPRI) — With the gas emergency on Aquidneck Island in its 4th day, people have been getting creative as they try to heat their homes and businesses so they can stay open or prevent frozen pipes.

But firefighters strongly warn against homemade heating contraptions, which can emit deadly carbon monoxide gas or potentially start a fire.

“A lot of people are resorting to different things,” Middletown Fire Marshal Robert McCall said. “Using propane, I’ve seen some construction heaters and things of that nature in businesses.”

Rob Lasky, who owns three Thames Street stores with his brothers, was one of those people. He set up propane tanks to run a heater in order to open Helly Hansen, Life is Good and the Toy Box on Wednesday. But the Newport Fire Department got wind of it and told him it was illegal and unsafe to have a propane tank inside a store.

“We thought we were being creative, trying to stay warm, trying to stay open for our customers and employees,” Lasky told Eyewitness News. He said firefighters were friendly and helped him remove the tanks.

Aquidneck Island Gas Outage: Vital resources »

Lasky noted that National Grid technicians had twice visited the store and did not object to the propane tanks. When asked about this in a conference call with reporters Thursday, National Grid Senior Vice President Terry Sobolewski said technicians are only trained in how to use their own gas system. He warned against customers coming up with creative heating alternatives.

McCall said the safest heating option during the gas outage is UL Listed electric space heaters, which are being handed out by National Grid at Gurney’s resort.

He said space heaters should be plugged directly into a wall, not an extension cord, and should have a three-foot “safe zone” around them where there are no combustibles and no children or pets.

MORE: Safety tips for utilizing space heaters »

He said wood-burning stoves or fireplaces are good options to heat the home if they’ve been properly cleaned and inspected, but ovens should never be used for heat.

McCall’s recommendation to businesses is to try and cordon off one area to open.

“If you can shrink down an area and maybe only open a certain area of your business or restaurant, make it smaller, make it so that the space heaters you do use can heat that area,” McCall said. 

Lasky said he’s unsure if Life is Good and Toy Box will be open this weekend when the temperatures dip, though Helly Hansen plans to stay open in case people need to buy cold weather gear. About 25 employees could be out of work this weekend at those stores alone.

“If you’re closed on a Monday, Tuesday…you can probably get by,” Lasky said. “If you’re closed on Friday, Saturday, Sunday there’s definitely implications going forward.”

Dozens of other businesses are closed all up and down Thames Street and the surrounding section of the city, including the Hotel Viking on Bellevue Avenue. 

Hotel general manager Mark Fischer said the heat went out on Monday, and more than 100 customers had to be evacuated to other hotels. About 40 employees are also out of work, and events booked this weekend at the hotel had to be canceled.

“It’s a challenging thing, losing this business that we had planned for,” Fischer said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo said employees who are out of work can immediately apply for unemployment benefits, and employers won’t have their employment insurance rates impacted.

At a news conference Thursday evening, Sobolewski suggested it could be five or six more days before everyone has the gas back on in Newport, though the first customers could start being turned on as soon as this weekend.

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