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Warning System : Gas Disaster Proves Boon to SAFER

April 09, 1985|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

A Westlake Village firm's computerized safety system will be in use in West Virginia next week when production of a deadly gas is resumed for the first time since the worst industrial accident in history killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

A desk-top computer will allow workers at the Union Carbide Corp. to predict which direction clouds of methyl isocyanate gas would drift in case of a leak at the chemical plant in Institute, W. Va.

In December, an accident in a similar Union Carbide plant in Bhopal released a cloud of the toxic gas. More than 2,000 people died when the invisible vapor drifted without warning into a residential area.

Engineers at SAFER Emergency Systems Inc. of Westlake Village, say their computer will be able to predict the speed and toxic intensity of a moving cloud if a leak occurs in West Virgina.

Once the calculation is made, the computer will telephone local authorities and issue recorded evacuation warnings. After that, the machine will continue to track the cloud and calculate its toxicity as it dissipates.

The $70,000 SAFER computer was installed at the plant on Feb. 13. Union Carbide officials said it was ordered in August, four months before the Bhopal tragedy.

The West Virginia plant suspended the production of methyl isocyanate after the Bhopal leak. When production is resumed next week as planned, it will be the only plant in the world manufacturing the chemical.

SAFER's telephone has not stopped ringing since the India tragedy, said Gary Gelinas, president and co-founder of the 7-year-old firm.

"We got calls from companies wanting us to come out immediately," he said. "We're having to triple our staff because of Bhopal."

That means a new work force of about 20 and predicted 1986 sales of about $5 million for the privately held company. That would be about 2 1/2 times this year's expected gross, Gelinas said.

The SAFER tracking system uses a 32-byte Motorola super-microcomputer. It is connected to a high-resolution monitor that displays in color the predicted path and toxic intensity of fumes. A printer produces paper copies for use by local authorities as evacuation maps.

Some of the 40 chemical plants that have purchased the system are thinking of wiring them into television receivers at police or fire stations, said Gelinas, 38, an Agoura Hills resident.

SAFER stands for Systematic Approach For Emergency Response. The firm was launched in 1978 as Form & Substance Co. At first it specialized in making computerized air-pollution monitoring equipment.

The company shifted its attention to tracking chemical leaks about three years ago. By then it had sold about 50 such monitoring computers to government agencies, and that market was drying up, Gelinas said.

"But there are thousands of chemical plants around the world," he said. "And safety is a growing concern with chemical companies."

Although another company, ERT of Concord, Mass., entered the computerized gas-cloud tracking field last year, its equipment has been used only for training purposes by Louisiana state officials, according to those in the industry.

SAFER's equipment is a refinement of a computerized tracking system developed by Dow Chemical Corp. for use at its Midland, Mich., manufacturing facility, Gelinas said.

So far, chemical companies that have purchased the SAFER system include the Du Pont Corp., which has now uses seven of the computers; Dow; Ciba-Giegy Corp.; Kaiser Aluminium & Chemical Corp.; Diamond Shamrock Corp.; and Olin Chemicals Co., according to SAFER.

Kaiser is the only company that has used the equipment to warn outsiders of an actual emergency.

That occurred in March, 1984, when a chloride spill sent a cloud of toxic gas wafting from a Kaiser plant about 40 miles from Baton Rouge, La.

The SAFER computer accurately predicted the path and concentration of the vapor and enabled the police to evacuate about 100 families form a mobile home park, said Jack Lashover, environmental engineering manager for the plant.

William Hoerger, a spokesman for Union Carbide in West Virginia, said his plant's SAFER computer has proved to be "quite a piece of equipment" under simulated conditions. It has not been used for a real leak, he said.

At SAFER's small business-park headquarters, Gelinas used a government topographic map of the Charleston, W. Va., area to demonstrate how computer programs are customized to the terrain around individual plants.

The computer can be connected to weather equipment that registers wind and temperature conditions that affect vapor concentration and dispersal. But it is usually up to a technician to enter such information after a leak or spill is discovered, he said. The worker uses an electronic "pencil" and computer terminal to pick the correct wind speed, wind direction, temperature, type and volume of escaping chemical, location of the leak or spill at the plant and when it happened.

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