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Chemical Fire Prompts New Policies to Cut Risks

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles city Fire Department evaluation of a spectacular Sun Valley chemical company fire has concluded that too many risks were taken in fighting the blaze, prompting the department to modify its procedures for handling hazardous material emergencies, fire officials said.

At the same time, the city’s firefighters’ union has criticized the department’s procedures for providing follow-up medical treatment for those who fought the fire, and the union will receive federal assistance to evaluate possible health hazards posed to the firefighters.

The department’s analysis of the April 14 blaze at Research Organic & Inorganic Chemical Co. determined that firefighters, police and civilians were allowed too close to a potentially dangerous area, that firefighters were positioned in the path of possibly toxic smoke and that police officers were not aware of the fire’s severity.

The chemical fire, at 9068 De Garmo Ave., has become a case study for the department, underscoring weaknesses in hazardous-material firefighting practices that officials said the department has been correcting since January.

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The lesson learned, officials said, is that stricter policies must be developed to ensure that a more cautious approach is taken in battling hazardous material fires and chemical spills.

In the San Fernando Valley, especially in Chatsworth, fire officials said there is mounting concern for preparedness to handle a major chemical emergency because of the growing number of high-tech industries using dangerous materials.

“If we had another De Garmo fire, you’re not going to see a lot of the same things happening,” said Assistant Chief Jack Bennett. “We were lucky in that fire. Risks go along with this business, but someone was watching over us that day.

“You are going to see a lot tighter perimeter controls as a result of this,” Bennett said. “A lot more freeways are going to be closed down when there’s a spill. First-responding officers are going to be taking a much more cautious approach.”

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A six-bock area was evacuated during the fire and a two-block area was cordoned off for two days when toxic gas drifted from the building’s ruins.

Although no one suffered major injuries at the fire, fumes from scores of burning poisonous chemicals sent 56 people to the hospital, including 52 firefighters and three police officers. Many complained of nausea, respiratory difficulties and dizziness, a department spokesman said.

Two police officers remain off duty with respiratory and other injuries as a result of exposure to smoke and two firefighters were away from their jobs for two weeks suffering from congestion and nose blisters, department spokesmen said.

The city firefighters’ union contends that the department should take the initiative for follow-up medical examinations for firefighters, who may not realize what potentially toxic materials they have been exposed to or what long-term health risks the materials may pose.

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Bennett said the department’s position is that, after initial treatment, it is the firefighter’s responsibility to notify his superiors if he feels he needs more treatment. Also, he said, the captain and battalion chief are required to ask firefighters under their command about possible health problems that could be related to exposure during a fire.

‘97% Effective’

“The internal check system to make sure firefighters get the proper treatment is 97% effective,” Bennett said.

At the request of the local union and the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, a survey will be conducted by the Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to identify possible long-term effects of the toxins on firefighters who were exposed to them in the Sun Valley blaze.

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Under federal law, the agency’s branch has authority to conduct field surveys of possible health hazards in the course of work and to determine whether substances that employees are exposed to have potentially toxic effects.

“This fire is a grave concern to us,” said Andrew Kuljis, president of the United Fire Fighters of Los Angeles. “We see chemical exposures as the single and largest threat to a firefighter’s well-being.”

“The fact that we felt it was necessary to call in NIOSH is not only an indication of the severity of the exposure, but the lack of response from the Fire Department to provide follow-up care that we feel those guys need,” said Don Forrest, the union’s first vice president.

The police officers who directed the evacuations and traffic will also be included in the investigation, Forrest said.

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“At the very least, they will know they don’t have a problem,” said Richard Duffy, director of occupational health and safety for the Washington, D.C.-based union. “For us, it is important to eliminate the anxiety of not knowing what you were exposed to.”

One of the biggest problems posed by industrial fires is that there is no immediate way to determine the amount of hazardous materials inside a building, officials said.

Limited Information

When the first firefighter arrived at the De Garmo Avenue fire, one of his primary sources of information was a placard on the building’s front door indicating that the firm handled chemicals of the most hazardous nature, some being water reactive. The placards, which are required by law, give no indication of the amounts of chemicals inside.

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“It could be a two-quart jar or 55-gallon drums,” Bennett said.

Based on the signs and the officer’s personal knowledge of his district, critical decisions must be made quickly in such a case concerning tactics that could affect the lives of civilians and firefighters.

When the first firefighters arrived at the Sun Valley scene, flames were shooting through the roof of the one-story brick building and several explosions had sent showers of sparks into the air.

Because of the placard, firefighters were positioned around the building, attacking the fire from the outside, mainly from aerial ladders, Bennett said.

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Like many hazardous material fires, Fire Department personnel began to identify the types of chemicals only after a command post had been established and fire-prevention records could be examined, Bennett said.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation,” Bennett said. “We are limited by the information we immediately receive at the scene, but have to make decisions as to how to save lives and property in a matter of minutes.”

Task Force Commander Terry Jacobsen of Chatsworth fire station 96 pointed to a major fire in February at Diceon Electronics as an example of the conflicting information a first-responding officer often faces.

When Jacobsen arrived at that fire, there was minimal smoke inside the building and no visible fire, he said.

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“The security guard told us there was cyanide stored inside and it seemed like a valid report,” Jacobsen said. “Then we get information from another employee that there wasn’t cyanide.”

“It would have been nice to know which report was true.”

It turns out that cyanide was not housed in the building, Jacobsen said.

Under the more conservative policies that will be enforced as a result of the De Garmo fire, firefighters will battle such blazes only on the side of a building least affected by fire and smoke, rather than confronting it on all sides.

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Bennett said questions were raised by officials as to whether water should have been used in fighting the Sun Valley fire in light of placards indicating the chemicals inside would react with water.

“It’s easy to fight the fire the day after,” Bennett said. “But the outcome may have been worse if we had not used water. It’s a judgment call, the calculated risk we must take.”

As a result of the De Garmo fire, he said, the department “doesn’t want to take as many chances as it used to take” in emergencies involving hazardous materials. Bennett said department chiefs will implement procedural changes that will enforce stricter safety zones surrounding the scene of an emergency, better communication with police and a closer examination of when water from storm drain systems should be dammed.

The changes spurred by the Sun Valley fire coincide with the department’s revamping of its procedures in dealing with hazardous materials.

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Since 1982, the department has formed three hazardous material squads, equipped with special entry suits and chemical detection devices. A mobile laboratory is available on a 24-hour call to help identify hazards.

Donald Manning, the department’s chief engineer and general manger, ordered the formation in January of a hazardous materials committee, headed by Bennett, to create management plans, training programs and decontamination procedures for chemical emergencies.

“In the past there have been no real guidelines to follow and efforts have been fragmented,” Bennett said.

Perhaps the most important tools used by firefighters are fire inspection records and a 20-year-old system of building inventories that contain information on construction, ventilation and hazardous materials stored inside major structures in each station’s district.

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However, the inventories, compiled in bulky black binders, are updated only once a year, so information about chemical storage may be obsolete when it is needed.

“What’s bad is that one day a company may have nothing and the next day they might have three drums of methyl ethyl ketone that would create a tremendous fire and explosion, but the building inventory wouldn’t tell us anything about it,” Bennett said.

Fire Department and union officials are backing a proposal by East Valley Councilman Howard Finn that would create a multimillion-dollar computerized inventory of hazardous industrial chemicals.

The proposed ordinance, which the council voted three weeks ago to send to the Finance Committee and city attorney for study, would require companies that possess hazardous chemicals to register the type and amount with the city on a continuing basis, creating a system to provide firefighters with immediate warnings of such contents in a burning building.

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Council members Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude have complained that the administration and fee structure of the project have not been thoroughly thought out. For example, the city has said the program would cost $3.3 million but fire officials estimated its cost at $1.7 million.

The proposal is expected to come before the council again within the next month, a Finn spokesman said. But even if the proposed computer system is approved, Bennett said, perhaps the most important factor in the department’s new hazardous materials program will be training firefighters to use a more conservative approach in a chemical fire.

“This is a department that prides itself in aggressively fighting fires. We train guys to react to a stimulus like an alarm and rush into burning buildings,” Bennett said. “Now, we are going to start saying, ‘Whoa, slow down, take your time.’ ”


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