Blast Reveals Gaps in Handling Crises Involving Toxic Materials

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.

For Fire Department officials, two key items have emerged from the Scripps Ranch incident: First, there is a need for quicker information sharing. Ideally, fire dispatchers should have computer-generated data allowing them to know whether an address involves hazardous materials at the same time they put out the first call. Each engine company should know the location and extent of all chemicals in its area, officials say.

"It would be nice to have all this read out on computer screens," Wesley Kilcrease, city fire marshal, said, in a way that connects not only different fire department units, but the county health officials and the poison center as well. Such instantaneous data could allow for quicker decisions in determining the nature of a hazard, officials said.

Second, the San Diego Fire Department wants to compile a complete list of companies having hazardous materials without regard to amount. The department has a proposal for such a survey before a City Council committee, which is scheduled to discuss its merits on April 17. Fire officials want to educate companies on safe storage and handling of hazardous materials as part of the survey.

"We could get a record of everything in a company, not just materials over a certain amount," Kilcrease said. He pointed out that the county's list did not include the 1,000 grams of the most dangerous chemical involved at the Fluid Systems explosion: toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a carcinogen and a severe respiratory irritant.

"And our system would tell companies how to store, how to dispense and how to dispose properly," he said. Kilcrease estimates that 5,000 companies in San Diego would fall under the comprehensive proposal.

County health officials readily agree more should be done.

"We'd like to see the 55/500 loophole closed," Dr. Donald Ramras, county health officer, said. That threshold figure was hammered out in 1982 during six months of discussions between the health department and private industry. Small companies wanted the cutoff point, because of the burden they believed would be placed on them by forcing listings of small amounts of chemicals.

"But you could have 494 pounds of cyanide, which is a dangerous chemical, and not have to be listed now," environmental chief Stephany said. "We want to get a workable number, perhaps five gallons, or 50 pounds, which is what a homeowner can transport now without permit." But Stephany said he also wants to apply a "reasonableness test," such as excluding common floor wax from reporting requirements, even though it technically can be a hazard.

The county also wants remaining cities to adopt the disclosure law so that hazardous inspections can be made countywide. At present, the county cannot check companies using hazardous materials in National City, Lemon Grove, La Mesa, El Cajon, Escondido and San Marcos.

Ramras would also like the San Diego Fire Department to collect all information for companies within San Diego should the City Council approve the department's inspection program. In that way, companies would not be subject to two inspections: one from the Fire Department and another from the county.

The Fire Department, however, is reluctant to undertake the joint inspection responsibility, because of fears that businesses would complain about providing the more comprehensive information desired by fire officials. Businesses negotiated for six months with county officials before the 1982 law was passed over how much information would be available to the public, expressing concern about disclosure of trade secrets, proprietary information and the possibility that it would allow disgruntled persons to identify factories to sabotage.

Meanwhile, the county is redesigning its forms so that a company will automatically be coded to the nearest fire district. And it is actively looking for a North County fire department to operate a second hazardous materials van received two months ago from the state that is still sitting unused in a county parking lot.

But even with tighter reporting requirements and greater coordination, there are still intangibles that the public should keep in mind, officials said.

For example, Fluid did list its 1,000 grams of TDI with the county, but the chemical did not show up on its computer lists for the Fire Department. Apparently, a clerk neglected to keypunch the page of chemicals that included TDI into the computer.

"Also, the danger is more than just high tech," Stephany said. "A warehouse full of plastic bottles, if it burns, can release chemicals more dangerous than a lot of high-tech places."

Stephany also said the dangers point out the need for tighter zoning to better separate industrial areas from residential neighborhoods. He hopes that planners will keep the idea in mind while laying out urban development on Otay Mesa.

"There are real problems, but we don't want people hysterical. These things don't happen every day."

And when they do happen, fire officials say that all the information may still come down to a judgment call by the first firefighters on the scene: do they risk possible death from toxic fumes in a building to save people known to be caught inside?

"It's a real judgment call," Stepanof said. "You have to take all the information you have and make a decision."

Added fire marshal Kilcrease: "I'm not going to say whether we would go in across-the-board, but I would venture to say that most of us would go in and do what we have to do.

"We are paid to protect lives. And with more information, with better inspection, we can do it with less risk."

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