Sicamous RCMP Sgt. Murray McNeil and Malakwa and Swansea Point firefighters discuss an evacuation response for the neighbouring school and businesses while establishing a safe perimeter in the event of an ammonia leak at the Sicamous and District Recreation Centre. Lachlan Labere/Eagle Valley News

Sicamous RCMP Sgt. Murray McNeil and Malakwa and Swansea Point firefighters discuss an evacuation response for the neighbouring school and businesses while establishing a safe perimeter in the event of an ammonia leak at the Sicamous and District Recreation Centre. Lachlan Labere/Eagle Valley News

Preparing for the worst

Shuswap emergency responders and arena staff tackle ammonia leak in training exercise

What begins as a small ammonia leak in the ice plant at the Sicamous arena has taken a turn for the worse; there’s a man down inside and the toxic, corrosive gas is escaping the building.

To make matters worse, a semi has collided with a hydro pole nearby on the highway, knocking out power to the arena, including the emergency systems that controls ventilation at the Sicamous and District Recreation Centre.

The gas is slowly billowing out of the arena and towards nearby neighbouring properties, an elementary school and local businesses among them.

This was the situation facing the different emergency response organizations involved in a training exercise held Thursday, Jan. 11 at the recreation centre.

“We had this ammonia scenario here today due to what happened in Fernie,” said Sicamous and District Recreation Centre manager Wayne March, referring ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena that left three people dead and prompted the city to declare a state of emergency, forcing the evacuation of 55 neighbouring homes and businesses. “We just want to let all services know what their roles are, what their jobs are if we ever had a major leak in our system.”

Sicamous Fire Chief Brett Ogino co-ordinated and oversaw the exercise that involved the Sicamous, Malakwa and Swansea Point fire departments, recreation centre staff, Sicamous RCMP, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District/Shuswap Emergency Program, the District of Sicamous, Eagle Valley Rescue Society, BC Emergency Health Services and local media. Also involved was arena contractor, Complete Climate Control, which maintains the refrigeration system in the plant.

While going over the details of the training exercise, Ogino emphasized the importance of keeping calm and sticking to protocol.

“We’ve all learned over the years, especially on the responder side, is that people who run in generally become victims,” said Ogino. “That isn’t what’s going to work. We have to do what’s proper and what’s according to your protocol. Slow down and stay calm. That’s the best thing you can be doing. Make the right decisions, you’ll be more efficient. You make the better decisions and you make fewer mistakes.”

With the emergency scenario set out before them, the group was divided by their respective agencies, with the Malakwa and Swansea Point firefighters joining the police, to determine what their priorities would be and how they would respond. These were later shared with the group as a whole and, in this process, refined with input from others. For example, Complete Climate Control manager Jamie Nicol advised that if there should be a wind blowing ammonia gas toward the school, it was better to keep the children in the locked down building and only evacuate it when it’s determined to be safe.


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Nicol also advised that if victim is covered in liquid ammonia, removal of clothing should not occur right away during during decontamination.

“You cover someone in liquid ammonia, those clothes are now frozen to them,” said Nicol. “You try to take their clothes off, you’re going to be taking skin off like a sleeve. Not good. If you cover them in water for a long time, that water will slowly get that ammonia out of their clothing, out of their skin. When their clothes are no longer frozen, then you can move them somewhere else.”

Summing up the exercise, Ogino stressed the importance of communication, with the participating agencies working together and sharing resources.

After the training exercise, the “victim,” – arena head engineer Cal Franson – took fellow participants for a tour of the plant. In the three decades Franson’s been working at the rec centre, it has never had a leak.

“We are more than up to standard and our plant is, I feel, one of the best in the area,” said Franson.