Firefighters burst through the front door of the Sicamous and District Rec Centre and began dressing in bulky grey hazmat suits.
Outside, other emergency responders set up basins and prepared hoses.
The lights of the firetrucks outside the rec centre lit up the night on Tuesday, Feb. 5, but the public had already been warned this was only a training exercise.
The reason for the firefighters’ presence at the arena and their specialized equipment was to test their response to an ammonia leak coming from the arena’s refrigeration equipment.
The early moments of the training exercise had a grim sense of urgency. The dangers posed by ammonia were highlighted by the events of Oct. 17, 2017 in Fernie where an equipment malfunction led to the death of three workers and the evacuation of a large part of the community.
Once they were into their hazmat suits and through the doors separating the arena lobby from the grandstands and ice surface, the firefighters went looking for arena staff members who were posing as victims stricken by ammonia exposure.
The hazards of ammonia are well known to the staff at the rec centre who deal with the operation and maintenance of the refrigeration equipment.
One wall of the spotlessly clean room which houses the chiller is adorned with the numerous certifications the staff hold.
Lead hand Cal Franson said all electrical systems related to the refrigeration system are inspected carefully each season before the rink begins operation and start up is overseen by an expert contractor.
Franson said the staff are trained to make adjustments when levels of ammonia that are not immediately hazardous are detected in the air.
Arena staff are equipped with small bite block respirators and full face shields which can protect them from ammonia levels under 300 parts per million.
The training exercise was meant to simulate a serious ammonia leak where the firefighters’ hazmat suits are necessary to safely enter the facility.
The firefighters first evacuated a simulated patient who was able to walk but had to be led out of the facility by firefighters. Firefighters then had to carry a dummy out of the building on a stretcher.
Outside the arena, another team of firefighters was preparing to decontaminate both the patients evacuated from the building and the firefighters who helped them get out.
No water was used in the simulated decontamination because of the frigid temperatures outside.
“We’ve discovered some weaknesses in our own training and we can always improve and get better. It’s getting better and better,” said Sicamous Fire Chief Brett Ogino to the firefighters gathered for a debrief after the training exercise.
Ogino praised the quick entry to the building the firefighters made but acknowledged the training exercise took place under ideal circumstances.
The firefighters donned their hazmat suits in the arena lobby for the training exercise, but in the event of a real ammonia leak, they might have to suit up in adverse weather far from the building in order to prevent themselves from being exposed.
Also on scene for the training exercise were firefighters from surrounding departments, members of the Eagle Valley Rescue Society, BC Ambulance crews and representatives from the local RCMP.
In the event of a major ammonia leak, each of these groups would have a role to play in getting exposure patients medical attention and evacuating the area surrounding the arena.
Ogino said the hot zone created by the ammonia leak simulated in the training would have encompassed Parkview Elementary, where a community event was going on the night of the training exercise.
Although preparation for a leak is essential to saving lives should one happen, Rec Centre facilities manager Wayne March said the rink at the Sicamous Rec Centre is one of the safest in the province.
He said safety measures in place have drawn praise from organizations such as Work Safe BC.