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Blast Reveals Gaps in Handling Crises Involving Toxic Materials

March 31, 1985|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

The first alarm came into the Scripps Ranch fire station at 1:31 p.m. March 15 from the central dispatcher: boiler explosion at the Fluid Systems plant on Old Grove Road.

Not until almost a half-hour later was it clear that a drum full of toxic chemicals had exploded, releasing a poisonous plume of smoke that briefly threatened residential neighborhoods surrounding the landscaped industrial park.

Special units to handle hazardous materials were quickly summoned and a precautionary evacuation of the area was ordered. Once the units arrived, they soon determined that the smoke had not moved beyond the plant site.

Nevertheless, two dozen firefighters, police officers and Fluid Systems' employees were hospitalized briefly with respiratory problems after breathing the toxic gas released from the explosion. And the community's sense that a far more serious accident was avoided only by chance raised several questions about the use of hazardous materials in the county.

The concern is heightened by the realization that, despite appearances, well-manicured high-technology industrial parks are potentially just as dangerous as soot-scarred brick factories.

Among the major questions:

- Do public officials know where and how hazardous substances are used?

- Is the information readily available to the proper emergency response units?

- What new laws do officials favor to better protect firefighters and the public?

There is uncertainty among both county health and fire officials about the present system's effectiveness. But all officials agree a better job can be done.

"We can use more information and more computers," said George Stepanof, the San Diego Fire Department's battalion chief in charge of its hazardous materials unit.

The extent of both the knowledge and the coordination--and the gaps in the system--came clear in the Fluid Systems incident.

In early 1984, Fluid provided the county's Department of Health Services with a list of hazardous materials used in making its water filtration systems. A 1982 hazardous materials law to cover unincorporated areas was subsequently adopted by 10 of the county's 16 cities. It allows the health department to compile lists of chemicals used by companies at area plants. Under the law, all chemicals must be reported in any amount that can cause cancer, and non-carcinogenic chemicals in amounts greater than 55 gallons or 500 pounds must also be listed.

The county put the list, and those of approximately 300 other companies, into its computer, and gave a paper copy to the San Diego Fire Department, whose area covers about 210 of the firms. The Fire Department keeps its copy in Stepanof's hazardous materials van for reference when it is called on to help by a fire station.

The chemical lists are not immediately available to individual stations as part of the information dispatched on a first alarm. As a result, the first engine companies at a fire do not automatically know whether the building contains hazardous materials that could complicate their task.

"Unless the engine company has surveyed the building as part of a pre-fire check of occupancies in its (coverage) area, it would have no reason to know it was dealing with dangerous chemicals until it got to the scene," Stepanof said. "Then, we and possibly the county's (hazardous materials) van would be called."

It turns out that the Scripps Ranch station had made a pre-fire check of Fluid Systems and had a complete list of chemicals used there, said Ron Davis, Fire Department education specialist. But because the dispatcher's information reported only a boiler explosion, the station did not call immediately for special assistance.

"You go at first by what the dispatcher says," Davis said. "And since the dispatcher was told only that a boiler was involved, he had no way of knowing what (chemicals) might be out there."

The department's hazardous materials van was called about a half-hour later, after the Scripps firefighters had learned of the chemicals involved. But then the special unit could not find the chemicals on its county-provided list, Stepanof said. While it scrambled to get information from the regional Poison Control Center at the UC San Diego Medical Center, the precau tionary evacuation was ordered.

About the same time, county health officials first learned of the potential problem from an employee who had heard a radio news report. "We called the Fire Department and asked if it needed our help and were told no, but we went anyway," said Gary Stephany, the department's environmental health chief. "We found out that there had been a breakdown in communication with the dispatcher, and that we were wanted out there."

In fact, Stepanof said that county specialists gave the word at the scene, some two hours after the drum explosion, that the evacuations could be ended.

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