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Firefighters Get Computer to Aid in Battling Chemical Hazards

February 25, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE SPRINGS — Suppose the Fire Department gets a panicked call one day from a local chemical company. There has been a leak of hydrogen fluoride, a toxic and corrosive gas.

Emergency crews rush to the scene. But instead of consulting textbooks and charts, a fire captain pulls down the tailgate of a red Chevrolet Suburban and turns to a computer for help.

In seconds, the computer provides information about fire and explosion hazards of the chemical and its health effects. Using elaborate graphics, it maps an evacuation area. A weather station mounted on one side of the vehicle measures wind velocity and temperature, allowing the computer to plot the direction in which a chemical cloud is moving.

Another click on the keyboard brings up a site plan of the refinery, showing the amount and type of the chemical and its location in the plant. And all this data is printed on the spot for other emergency and medical personnel to use.

Although this disaster scenario is hypothetical, the department's response would be a reality, thanks to a computer system installed a few months ago.

"It takes the guesswork out of it for us," said Fire Chief Robert Wilson. "The information doesn't do us any good locked up in boxes and file cabinets."

The information is crucial to disaster response in heavily industrialized Santa Fe Springs, where fire officials estimate that more than 1,000 businesses use and store hazardous chemicals. The two largest local refineries--Powerine Oil Co. and Golden West--store a total of 30,000 gallons of hydrogen fluoride used to manufacture gasoline.

Last year, the Fire Department responded to 165 hazardous material accident calls, including a 4-square-mile chlorine cloud released when the Oct. 1 earthquake knocked a one-ton storage cylinder off its stand at All-Pure Chemical Co., Wilson said. Before it disintegrated about four hours later, the cloud sent 11 people to the hospital with minor injuries.

Wilson estimates 75 to 100 other Santa Fe Springs businesses use hazardous materials that, in case of an accident, would require evacuation of local and neighboring areas. "We have the potential to produce a real problem here," Wilson said. ". . . But (people) shouldn't be concerned about it. The companies are tightly regulated. They don't want any accidents, either."

The City Council, recognizing the potential for accidents, last year voted to spend $25,000 on the mobile computer and an accompanying system in the fire station.

"It was expensive, but it will pay for itself with one incident," Wilson said. "We've had to move 10,000 people before--this way at least we'll have an idea of how to handle the situation."

Battalion Chief Roger Henson, the first to be trained on the computer, said it has been used for two or three minor incidents since it was installed in September. "We haven't really gotten to use it on a big spill yet," Henson said.

The computer has information on 2,600 hazardous materials, and also has a code-breaker program that can decipher a type of chemical based on color or smell. The software was designed by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after 10 years of helping the U.S. Coast Guard deal with oil and chemical spills.

Henson said he believes Santa Fe Springs is the only city in Southern California to have a mobile hazardous materials computer operation. An Apple MacIntosh computer with a 9-inch black-and-white screen is built into an oak-veneer console in the back of the Suburban.

An adjoining book rack is stocked with maps and books in case the computer fails, with a cellular telephone and fire radio above the tailgate on the other side. A computer printer, capable of generating maps as well as printed information, is built into the console.

Henson is placing a Santa Fe Springs map into the computer, complete with symbols for schools, hospitals and businesses. The department plans to upgrade the system in the next few months by adding site plans of the city's 75 to 100 high-risk businesses to computer storage, showing the amount and type of chemical at each location.

State law requires all businesses to report to local authorities the type, quantity, location and health hazard of any hazardous materials on site. Last month, Santa Fe Springs finished surveying the city's 3,500 businesses, 700 of which reported hundreds of hazardous materials ranging from liquid oxygen to cyanide.

But Wilson believes several hundred businesses have not submitted accurate reports and the Fire Department plans to step up inspections to track down the offenders. Businesses can be fined up to $25,000 a day for failing to disclose hazardous materials, he said.

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