Mobil Oil to Pay for High-Tech Emergency Notification System : Communications: Phone technology would warn residents of dangers near Torrance refinery. City sued oil company after fires, accidents raised safety concerns.

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The Torrance City Council has voted unanimously to allow Mobil Oil Corp. to pay for the first year of a computerized telephone system that would notify city residents of emergencies.

Under the agreement with Torrance, Mobil will pay $15,525 for the first year of service and has offered to pay for up to five years if the city is satisfied with the system.

Mobil, which operates a 750-acre refinery in northeast Torrance, was sued by the city in 1989 after two major fires and other accidents raised community concern about safety at the plant. The lawsuit resulted in an October, 1990, settlement with two major components: Mobil must modify or phase out its use of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid by the end of 1997, and a court-appointed safety adviser will help oversee refinery safety.

The emergency alert system, which Fire Chief Scott Adams said is a valuable tool, will deliver a taped message to telephone numbers designated by city officials. The city will determine what the message will say.

The city will pay the $10,000 cost of providing unlisted numbers to Automated Communications Inc., the company that will operate the network. The confidentiality of unlisted numbers is provided for in the contract with the city, Adams said.

The Fire Department divides the city into response zones according to the potential hazards in those areas. Adams said these zones might be adapted for use within the calling system so that residents in the most danger could be notified first.

Ken Baechel, president of Automated Communications, said the notification process needs to be specific.

"To do 135,000 (calls) instantly is not a realistic expectation," Baechel said. "If you want to do mass notification, you're better off using the mass media and use us where the real danger exists." The alert system can notify 10,000 to 12,000 households in an hour; Torrance has a population of 133,000.

Mobil suggested that the city adopt the system, which also provides emergency notification to residents of Joliet, Ill., where the company has a refinery.

"It's not uncommon at all for people in our industry; the other large oil companies do this in their communities also, " said Rick Napier, emergency coordinator for Torrance's Mobil refinery. "It's another tool for emergency response."

City Manager LeRoy Jackson said Wednesday that the city might not have been able to afford the service without Mobil's financial help. "I think it's a very generous offer," Jackson said.

The Automated Communications network serves 450 cities in the United States and will soon add El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hawthorne and Gardena, which are all using city funds to pay for joining the system.

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