Rock County officials see a need to improve safety measures after chemical fumes led to the evacuation of the courthouse in Janesville on July 19.
New procedures to keep some offices running remotely and purchase of an emergency alert system are among the changes contemplated, Facilities Management Director Brent Sutherland told the county board’s General Services Committee on Tuesday.
A worker pumped a chemical mixture used to treat the courthouse cooling system’s water into the wrong receptacle that morning, causing a reaction that produced chlorine gas, Sutherland said.
“The employee is beating themselves up pretty hard,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland was responding to a question by county board member Yuri Rashkin, who asked if disciplinary action was considered.
Sutherland said no disciplinary action was taken because poor performance was not involved.
“It was an honest mistake that happened. He wasn’t being careless,” Sutherland said.
Randy Terronez, assistant to the county administrator, who was in charge the day of the fumes release, said the worker returned to the courthouse twice after being treated at a hospital, out of concern for courthouse operations and staff, and he had to be told to go home.
“He was very, very remorseful,” Terronez said.
Costs of the emergency have not been calculated, the county’s new risk manager, Terri Carlson, told the committee. The event is covered by insurance with a $200,000 deductible, she said.
The chemical supply company usually fills the containers in the boiler room, but staff members also routinely have filled the containers as needed, Sutherland said.
In this case, the worker noticed the sulfuric acid mixture was running low and started filling a container to make sure the chemical would not run out over the weekend, Sutherland said.
But the worker selected a different chemical, sodium hypochlorite, which is used to kill bacteria in the cooling system water.
The worker used a pump to transfer the product, and a chemical reaction began producing gas.
“The gas soon filled the boiler room, which is adjacent to the parking garage. He opened the door to ventilate the boiler room, and the gas started to fill the parking garage,” according to a handout Sutherland gave to the committee.
From now on, only the supplier will be allowed to fill the containers, Sutherland said.
In addition, the county is looking into having the barrels of chemicals labeled more prominently. All the barrels are white, but the labels are different, Sutherland said.
As the fumes spread, workers shut down the air-handling system, but not before fumes were sucked into the air intake at the front of the courthouse, Sutherland said.
Sheriff’s office records show the 911 call came in at 8:30 a.m., and the courthouse was completely evacuated at 8:50 a.m.
Sutherland said after the meeting that he would like to see that happen faster.
Other changes the county is working on:
- Procedures will be established so some county offices can operate off-site during emergencies.
- Purchase of the Rave Alert system, which sends automated text, voicemail and email notices to all staff with the touch of a button. Sutherland said installation would cost $1,000, followed by about $5,000 a year.
Currently, the county uses a phone tree to alert employees, with a supervisor notifying workers one at a time, which takes time and risks missing someone, according to the handout.
Employees also were alerted to the emergency with a public-address system.
- An evacuation gathering point for the facilities manager, risk manager and others who are needed to respond to emergencies, will be established. Officials had difficulty finding the right people during the event, Sutherland said.
- The county Emergency Operations Center will be activated in such emergencies. The center has been used for bigger emergencies, such as the hunt for criminal fugitive Joseph Jakubowski in 2017, but it also should be operating during a situation like this so leaders can oversee the response and help with communications to staff and the public, Sutherland said.
The center is in the basement of the Rock County Health Care Center, 3.7 miles away.
Some key facts from sheriff’s office and Janesville Fire Department reports about the incident:
- One deputy using a breathing apparatus had to lift his mask to talk on his radio, was exposed to fumes and had his face flushed with water to eliminate “irritation.”
- Deputies deployed a drone “for surveillance and security measures.”
- A fire department hazardous-materials team entered the building at 10:55 a.m. with a chlorine meter but found no gas in the parking garage or within 10 feet of the container where the gas came from.
- A hazardous-materials handling company was called to remove the container, which has a 60-gallon capacity but had nine to 12 gallons of liquid in it.
- The courthouse was released for normal use at 4:16 p.m.