Firm Ready to Tackle Hazardous Material Spills

Times Staff Writer

At GA Technologies, officials work hard never to have a chemical spill or other incident involving hazardous materials. But if there is one, they have their own emergency crews on hand around the clock to minimize potential dangers.

"After all, a major fire could put us out of business," said T.R. Colandrea, director of quality assurance at the 1,700-employee firm specializing in nuclear fusion research. GA is the nation's largest privately owned fusion research company.

To prevent that scenario, GA has a 140-member quality control division that puts equal emphasis on prevention of accidents and quick response should something happen. GA has its own fire truck, ambulance and hazardous materials van. It also has a special radiation van that has been designated by federal officials to handle radioactive spills in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Both the fire unit and radiation van were dispatched earlier this month when a Navy jet crashed in a parking lot next to high-technology firms in Sorrento Valley.

"We try to make sure that all our procedures are tested before something happens," Colandrea said. "That means monthly meetings with safety committees from all divisions and on-site inspections in various labs, including inspections of one vice president's operation by another vice president."

GA has emergency personnel trained as paramedics on duty 24 hours a day. In addition, each division has numerous engineers and scientists trained in first aid, fire suppression and evacuation, numbering about 10% of the total work force.

"They would be on the scene (of an incident) first and so would be the first people to react," said Frank Bold, safety services manager. Locations of all the volunteer first-aid workers are marked by a triangular emergency sign easily found throughout the sprawling GA complex, which overlooks North San Diego.

The county's environmental health officer, Gary Stephany, praised the GA program.

"I wish there were a lot more of them," he said. "It makes our prevention (of hazardous materials incidents) easier."

Bold schedules various drills to test training. Recently, he turned out the lights in the motor generator pit, an eight-foot-deep trench in which a generator stores power to put into the company's fusion devices.

"We put a person on the floor of the pit and then tested how well the emergency people could get the person out using air packs and litters," Bold said. "We learned that the packs aren't as easy to work with as we thought.

"And two weeks later, we found that smoke had been generated in the fusion area, and we had to go in with air packs to find the source. We were able to handle it far better because of the drills."

GA officials list only two major incidents in the past 13 years: a fire in a computer in the fusion division, and a fire in submarine batteries being tested at the center.

"The batteries really weren't much of a danger, but they sure could be seen for miles," Bold said.

The program has the strong support of top management, Colandrea said.

"The reason we haven't had a major problem is not luck, but the fact that we can nip things in the bud with good responses that aren't seat-of-the-pants.

"If we would lose a number of people because of a dumb act that should have been noticed, if things are left to fester--well, that just cannot be allowed to happen."

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