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Clayton firefighters prepare for worst case scenarios

By Ed Brock

There are many things that could happen in a tunnel that carries a busy interstate under a runway for the world's busiest airport.

That's why Clayton County firefighters trained for three days in the tunnel that will carry Interstate 285 eastbound under Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's fifth runway.

The runway won't be in service until next June, but some time this week traffic will be diverted into the eastbound tunnel. When that happens, the Clayton County Fire Department will be ready, Lt. Landry Merkison said.

"Everything works just like it's supposed to. Three good days of drilling, just like we wanted," Merkison said. "Anything we can run into in these tunnels, we've already done a drill."

They started with three hours of classroom time. Then the firefighters went to the site and ran hose drills. They practiced extracting a trapped driver from a supposedly burning vehicle. They even studied how smoke moves through the tunnel.

"That way we know if it's going to rise to the ceiling or stay on road level," Merkison said.

They were also there to test the safety equipment built into the tunnel and make sure it was up to code. For example, a 6-inch "stand pipe" runs through each wall of the tunnel with hose connections every 64 feet.

If needed, the firefighters have about 5,200 gallons of a substance called FireAide that they can be mixed with the water to create a foam that breaks down gasoline and other fuels into a non-hazardous form.

Clayton County Fire Battalion 1 Chief James Maloy's worst-case scenario is a tanker truck fire in the tunnel or anything involving hazardous material. However he's impressed by the fact that the tunnel's roof can withstand flames for three hours before it collapses.

"They've designed it pretty well to protect us," Maloy said.

Maloy also pointed out that there are call-boxes along the tunnel walls with phones connected directly to Clayton County's 911 dispatch. There are cameras above each call box that activate automatically when a call is made so dispatchers can see what the caller is doing.

His men have been training hard, Maloy said, but more importantly they are learning first hand how the tunnel's safety system will respond.

"We don't want to find that out at 3 in the morning when something's wrong," Maloy said.

Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician Brad McCray said the training had been most instructive.

"This is good to find out what we can and cannot do," McCray said.

When the westbound tunnel opens up in several more months the firefighters will come back to train in that structure as well, Merkinson said.

As for the ultimate disaster, a plane crash on or near the tunnel, that would be handled by the city of Atlanta's fire department would handle that if it was confined to the airstrip. If the plane somehow falls onto I-285 then Clayton County would assist.

Around 9 p.m. Wednesday, weather permitting, the ramp from Riverdale Road to eastbound I-285 will be closed as traffic is shifted into the tunnel, Hartsfield-Jackson spokeswoman Lanii Thomas said.