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'Live' ammonia release drill held at AMS

When first responders perform their tasks, often under dangerous and potentially deadly conditions, one of the reasons they may exude confidence can be traced to the training they receive.

With training exercises, they try to duplicate what they will confront, and practice the best ways to handle it.

One recent example took place in Henry County, when approximately 200 firefighters took part in the 10th annual Atlanta "Live" Ammonia Release Drill and Hazmat Training exercise, at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) in Hampton.

"The goal of the drill was to combine the efforts of industry and fire departments to provide a more-effective and efficient response," said Henry County Fire Chief Brad Johnson.

Firefighters, some in specialized suits, were shown what to do in the event of an ammonia leak. Fire personnel spent three days in two different locations learning how to respond to a "live" ammonia release. They suited up in full gear and took turns going into the hot zone –– an area where the ammonia was released. They worked together to cover the ammonia cloud with tarps, then returned to allow another team to repeat the drill.

Once they returned, they were decontaminated in a "decon sweep" by another team.

Firefighters, Hazardous Materials [Hazmat] teams, along with representatives from the chemicals industry across Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, participated in the training exercise.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency's office in Atlanta also was on hand. The Hazmat training began on Monday, with a classroom portion at Heritage Park, in McDonough. It continued Tuesday at the Roswell-Alpharetta Public Safety Training Center, and concluded Wednesday at AMS.

Among the instructors at the training session was Patrick Johnson, a former Louisiana firefighter. Johnson was injured Sept. 17, 1984, along with his captain, in a Shreveport plant, during an ammonia leak. He was burned over 72 percent of his body, 40 percent of those burns were third-degree burns. His fire captain, Percy R. Johnson, was burned over 98 percent of his body. The fire captain died 36 hours later, as a result of his injuries.

Patrick Johnson started the Percy Johnson burn foundation in memory of his captain.

"During the process of trying to patch the leak [at the cold storage plant], by replacing a valve, the ammonia ignited and exploded," said Johnson. He got involved in fire safety as a result of his injuries. "I represent the fire side," he said. "We felt if we could cross the culture in every response, the outcome would be positive."

Johnson credits Nordic Cold, of Doraville, for being a leading supporter in the ammonia Hazmat training project. "It's through their level of effort that the program has grown where it is today," he said. Other companies have also supported firefighters in their training. He cited Tanner Industries, of Southampton, Pa.

David Binder, of Tanner, is considered a premier trainer in ammonia emergency response. He said his company has participated in the drills at AMS for the past 10 years. Binder said an ammonia leak can happen more easily than many people think, and it can happen at any cold storage facility, which contains freezers, or even at smaller facilities such as grocery stores.

"I would like for them [firefighters] to learn how to deal with an ammonia release safely, effectively and efficiently," he said.