Local residents in West Berkeley were concerned by a loud alarm that sounded for more than five minutes Monday night. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Local residents in West Berkeley were concerned by a loud alarm that sounded for more than five minutes Monday night. Photo: Tracey Taylor

A loud alarm emanating from Bayer HealthCare’s West Berkeley campus concerned many local residents Monday night who wanted to know its cause.

Residents said the alarm went off for more than five minutes Monday, beginning around 9:10 p.m. The facility is located at 800 Dwight Way, and runs along Seventh Street between Dwight Way and Grayson Street.

Local residents described the sound as a siren or air horn, and said they heard it “wailing” for an extended period of time.

Wrote one local resident on Twitter, “Those alarms are disturbing & unintelligible when they relay spoken messages…like adults in Charlie Brown movies,” adding, “I don’t know if they’re tsunami tests, hazmat alerts, or what. I’ve never been able to make out a single word.”

Another local resident said she was “used to hearing it at all hours but it went on wayyy longer than usual this evening.”

Bayer spokeswoman Jennifer Chang said Tuesday that the alarm had activated in connection with a steam boiler Monday night.

“We apologize for the disturbance yesterday,” Chang said by email. “A steam boiler alarm was activated last night, which by design, alerts our staff that it needs attention. Steam boilers are essential to our manufacturing process, and pose no threat to our Berkeley neighbors.”

Boiler alarms are tested daily at 8:30 a.m., she added.

“We appreciate the concern raised by the community. We certainly strive to minimize disturbances to our neighborhood and want to encourage residents to call our security team at 510-705-5059 if they have questions about an alarm.”

Last September, local residents expressed similar concerns after hearing loud noises at Bayer. An alarm had begun going off “loudly and frequently” in connection with a new boiler that Bayer was in the process of commissioning.

Bayer spokeswoman Trina Ostrander told Berkeleyside by email at that time that “Steam Boilers are required by the State Inspector to have an alarm loud enough to hear throughout the site. This does not typically indicate a safety condition — according to our site engineer, the recent issues have been functional problems with Bayer’s manufacturing operations.”

In a follow-up email in September, Ostrander stressed that neighbors need not be concerned about a safety hazard should they hear the steam boiler alarm.

“We’re working with the City on a coordinated emergency notification system so that residents could easily get info,” she wrote. “I wish it were up and running now! I am assured these sirens are warning of operational problems, not safety issues.”

Ostrander said Tuesday that the notification system is still in the works. She said Bayer met with the city several weeks ago “and we are hoping for progress on a coordinated system soon.”

There are three types of alarm at the Berkeley site, she said. Bayer has created a factsheet to describe the alarms and let residents know what to do when they hear them.

According to the factsheet, in addition to the boiler alarm, which sounds like a continuous air horn blast, there are also alarms related to fires and ammonia refrigeration.

The boiler alarms do not represent a threat to anyone off-site, according to Bayer. The boilers are necessary to the plant’s manufacturing process, and alarms related to the boilers are required by law to be tested daily.

The fire alarms sound like an on-and-off ringing bell, “like typical alarms,” according to the factsheet.

“Bayer maintains a rigorous safety and emergency response system, with a trained Emergency Response Team and a fire truck on site in case of emergencies. Our prevention and response systems include fire detection, fire alarms, and fire suppression systems installed in every building throughout the site, per state and city regulations.”

The most significant alarm for area residents is the one related to ammonia. That alarm sounds like a “loud wailing noise that slowly alternates between low and high pitch. It is accompanied by a male voice giving instructions—often incomprehensible, regrettably, because of sound bounce-back off buildings.”

The ammonia alarm is tested at noon on the first Wednesday of each month.

Ammonia is the primary refrigeration technique used at the West Berkeley campus. According to Bayer, it “is the most efficient and environmentally sound refrigeration technique used globally.”

However, the factsheet continues, “Ammonia can pose significant health risks if inhaled in the event of a sizeable (sic) accidental release. Under typical East Bay weather conditions, ammonia generally will not travel at unsafe levels more than ¼ to ½ mile from the site’s boundaries—along Seventh Street between Dwight Way and Grayson Street. Our refrigeration system has several design features to mitigate the risk of an unsafe off-site release, which has never occurred at the Berkeley site.”

If the ammonia alarm goes off at times other than at noon on the first Wednesday of the month, Bayer says residents should take shelter inside, close all doors and windows, turn off thermostats and stay inside until they are informed that it is safe to leave.

Those who are outside should “move quickly upwind.”

People with additional questions can reach the Bayer Security Hotline at 510-705-5000, or reach out to Trina Ostrander by email or phone, 510-705-7880.

See the complete Bayer alarm factsheet here. This story was updated shortly after publication to include information from the factsheet.

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Bayer HealthCare may expand in West Berkeley (09.12.14)
Bayer invites public comment on new building proposal (05.06.14)
Berkeley praises Bayer, city’s largest for-profit employer (11.02.12)
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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...