Chemical release turns test into real thing

New alarm system put to use for Wagner's Point

July 28, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

More than 1,140 people near Wagner's Point served as accidental guinea pigs yesterday for a new police community alert system in the wake of an industrial incident that sent a chemical cloud billowing from a plant on Fairfield Avenue.

The chemical spill began with a small explosion about 7 a.m. that left a heavy mist hanging briefly over the Southeastern Baltimore community and sent 10 people to area hospitals.

Three people were treated at University of Maryland Medical Center and released. The conditions of the others were not known by authorities last night.

The alert system, a computer-driven automated telephone system at the police communications center downtown, began calling residents of the area with a recorded message about two hours after the spill to instruct them how to clean up. The system used 40 telephone lines to reach people in about a half-hour.

The test of the system began at 9 a.m. and occurred in an area where residents have been alarmed in the past by chemical accidents.

Jerry McGinnis, plant manager at Rhodia Inc.'s manufacturing plant, where the leak occurred, said a pressurization tank being used to make a chemical used in paint blew a relief valve about 7 a.m., releasing about 800 gallons of the liquid. A cloud of the mixture was visible to residents before it dissipated.

At least 11 people were affected and had to wash off at the site, according to Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres of the city Fire Department. Torres had no details about who was injured or where they were when they were caught in the cloud.

The accident occurred on the day that police officials had planned to announce their use of "The Communicator!" system.

Col. Timothy Longo, the department's chief of technical services, said the service worked "in a quiet and orderly way."

Produced by a Tennessee-based company, the computer software at the heart of the system can be used in a variety of ways: to alert neighborhoods to burglary patterns or con artists; report to pawnshops about hawkers of hot goods on the streets; warn the elderly of what to do in a heat wave; or make announcements about hurricanes.

"We notify Neighborhood Watch areas, and we have a community bulletin board to call people about street closings," said Athens, Ga., police Sgt. Joe Walter, whose department uses the system. "And we have people call us back. It's not fast enough to catch a tornado, but it's fast enough to catch a burglar."

Baltimore's system, which cost $46,500, has been paid for by a state grant and funds from asset forfeitures in court proceedings.

A similar but smaller system, known as auto-dialer, is used by the Baltimore County Police Department to notify county residents of crime patterns.

Torres said a team of firefighters and investigators from the state Department of the Environment went into plant in the 3400 block of Fairfield Ave. and determined that the neighborhood faced no significant hazard.

The mixture was made up of allyl glycidil ether and sodium metabisulfite, McGinnis said. He said that allyl glycidil ether is an irritant but that sodium metabisulfite was not a hazard.

Last week, residents began moving out of Wagner's Point as part of a public-private buyout of their homes to enable them to leave the industrial area with its chemical plants.

Rhodia declined to participate, noting, in part, its good safety record.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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