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Exercise tests response to Whistler Sliding Centre emergency



Just five months out from the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Whistler Fire Services and the Whistler Sliding Centre hosted a joint emergency exercise on Wednesday to test their response in the event of an emergency.

The exercise was held to familiarize new volunteer members of the fire department with the Olympic venue, to test operational planning and communications systems and to go over procedures to deal with an incident involving the track's ammonia plant.

"We're going over some of the safety procedures we put in place back when the ammonia was brought to town, just to make sure our staff and the sliding centre staff are on the same page with emergency response protocols," said Whistler fire chief Rob Whitton. "We're testing our communications system to make sure it's working as it should be. (Ammonia) is a hazardous material that needs to be treated with respect."

Despite the quantity of ammonia on site, used as a refrigerant to maintain the 1.5 km bobsleigh, luge and skeleton track, Whitton is confident that his team can respond to any emergency. They have the proper suits to handle hazardous materials and ammonia bonds with water quite well once hoses come into play.

There are plans to evacuate people living in the area in the event of a major leak, but Whitton doubts that it would ever come to that.

"The fact of the matter is that this (ammonia) plant is built to probably the strictest safety standards I've ever seen," he said. "There are a number of mitigating processes and protocols in place, redundancies. For example if there is a leak within the building then the plant can shut itself down and begin venting the area with powerful fans into the atmosphere, where it assimilates quickly and is not an issue."

Whistler Fire Services is training for worst case scenarios, Whitton says, despite the general safety of the ammonia plant and storage systems.

Even before the Whistler Sliding Centre was built firefighters were trained to deal with ammonia leaks. That's because ammonia is used as a fertilizer across the province and is shipped by truck and train in all directions. Accidents could occur almost anywhere.

According to Whitton they are still waiting to find out what kind of presence they will have at the sliding centre and other Olympic venues during the Games in order to have first responders on site. He expects to be able to release that information soon, once emergency plans are released.