For residents around West Berkeley wondering about an audible alarm sound Tuesday evening, Bayer Pharmaceuticals confirmed that a boiler alarm at their facility had sounded, but there was no danger to residents. And, in fact, there is never any danger to residents when that particular alarm sounds.
“These audible notifications are required by state regulations when a boiler’s operation goes outside of preset levels,” Bayer Global Head for Biotech Communications Catherine Keck said in an email. “Boiler alarms are an operational notification requirement and represent no safety threat to the larger neighborhood.”
According to Bayer’s website, “If you hear a boiler alarm no action is required, even if it is outside of the testing window. No one off-site is in danger.” The company tests the boiler alarm daily at 8:30 a.m., according to its website.
But the one-note boiler alarm, which sounds like the blast of an air horn, is not Bayer’s only one. Its ammonia alarm sounds like “a loud wailing noise that slowly alternated between low and high pitch,” according to their website. “The siren is accompanied by a male voice giving instructions to shelter in place or indicating that the siren is in test mode.”
Bayer typically tests its ammonia alarm monthly. Residents should ignore those test runs, but “If you hear this siren at any time other than noon on the first Wednesday of the month, or if the siren’s verbal message directs you to shelter in place, treat this as an emergency situation,” the company’s website advises. That includes finding indoor shelter, closing doors and windows and turning off thermostats.
“If you are outside, quickly move inside,” the company warned. “Stay inside until informed that it is safe to go outdoors.”
Regularly scheduled tests notwithstanding, Bayer also tested its ammonia siren Monday, Keck said, because it had “a scheduled update to the siren system, and the equipment requires audible testing to be fully operational.”
Bayer sent postcards and communicated “through a variety of other channels” with residents in the immediate area of their campus to advise them that Monday’s test run was coming, Keck said.
“Berkeley Fire Department would be called in the event there is a potential safety risk to our neighbors,” Keck said. “In such a situation, a joint incident command would send important messages on emergency communications platforms. Berkeley Fire and Bayer Emergency Response Teams conduct annual joint trainings to ensure effective collaboration in the event of an incident.”
Bayer conducts biopharmaceutical production at its Berkeley facility and uses ammonia to ensure precise refrigeration. “The ammonia plant cools glycol used for chilling processes in buildings across the campus,” Keck said. “Similarly, the boilers generate steam which is distributed across the site for biotech process controls.”
The company said there has never been an unsafe off-site release of ammonia at its Berkeley location. Ammonia can harm people if they touch it, or inhale it in quantities greater than 25 parts per million, according to Bayer.
“High levels of ammonia can irritate and burn the skin, mouth, throat, lungs, and eyes, according to the federal Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. “Very high levels of ammonia can damage the lungs or cause death.”
Under normal weather conditions for the East Bay, ammonia would travel at most ½ mile from Bayer’s site, which runs along Seventh Street between Dwight Way and Grayson Street, according to Bayer.
Bayer also has conventional fire alarms, which sound like an “on-and-off ringing bell sound,” according to its website. Besides the emergency teams, the company has a fire truck on site, as well as “fire detection, fire alarms and fire suppression systems” in all their buildings.
“In any emergency, call 911 or visit the city of Berkeley’s emergency website,” the company advised.