KELOWNA - Could the tragedy that killed three in a hockey arena in Fernie this week happen at a Kelowna ice rink?
City of Kelowna building services manager Martin Johansen says it’s not likely, given the strict safety protocols around the handling of ammonia, the toxic liquid used to cool ice surfaces that’s suspected in the three deaths.
“We don’t know yet but I suspect there was a catastrophic failure of some kind where there was a sudden release of liquid ammonia,” Johansen says.
Because ammonia will flash from a liquid to a toxic gas when exposed to air, Johansen figures a large amount was release suddenly, instantly turned into a gas and overcame the three victims before they had a chance to react.
Before joining the City of Kelowna, Johansen worked as refrigeration mechanic and says ammonia has been routinely used for decades and the extensive safety equipment in use around them to detect leaks and provide escape for employees means there’s little chance it was a slow leak.
The city uses ammonia cooling systems in the Rutland and Memorial arenas. It is also used at the Capital News Centre which is owned by the city but operated by RG Properties. Ammonia cooling is also employed at Prospera Place which is owned and operated by RG Properties as well as the Kelowna Curling Club.
West Kelowna has an ammonia system that cools ice in both Royal LePage Place and the Jim Lind Arena.
Johansen says the Rutland Arena system suffered a leak just three weeks ago that was serious enough to evacuate the building and call the Kelowna Fire Department, which must be called if ammonia reaches 200 parts per million.
But long before the fire department would be called in, Johansen says the system’s built in sensors and fans kick in and begin dispersing gas at a level of 25 ppm. As well, Johansen said the 200 ppm threshold that brings in the fire department is well below the level that would actually kill someone.
Both Kelowna and West Kelowna contract with Cimco Refrigeration to service its systems, the same company that employed one of the people killed in Fernie. The other two were municipal employees. None of the victims have been publicly identified.
Johansen said the city doesn’t track how many private companies are employing ammonia-based cooling systems.
Kelowna Fire Department Chief Travis Whiting said the department has a pre-plan in place for every building or facility in Kelowna that employs ammonia so firefighters know how to reach shut-off valves and the location of exits.
He could not immediately confirm how many such systems are used within the city. He also could not confirm how many ammonia calls the department’s hazardous materials team has responded to in recent years, mainly because it’s quite uncommon.
The investigation into what happened in Fernie will include WorkSafe B.C and the B.C. Safety Authority as well as the RCMP and the B.C. Coroner’s Service and Johansen thinks the tragedy could spur new safety regulations and changes to the protocol, depending on their findings.
“I’m sure we will be getting a debriefing very soon once they find out what happened,” he says. “And changes to the protocols could come very quickly after that."
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