By Staff Sgt. Eric Ritter
106th Public Affairs Detachment
STOREY COUNTY, Nev. - Nevada National Guard and civilian emergency teams conducted a hazardous leak training exercise here Saturday in response to a mock 7.1 earthquake as part of the Vigilant Guard 2008 domestic response scenario.
Emergency responders and Wal-Mart officials at the storeâ€™s distribution center located about 10 miles east of Reno worked together to contain the potentially dangerous leak and prevent exposure to the local population.
The hazardous leak was just one of several scenarios that could occur in the event of an earthquake. During this particular scenario, teams discovered a leaking tank of anhydrous ammonia, a gas refrigerant used at Wal-Martâ€™s distribution warehouse.
Although the tank is equipped with state-of-the-art safety features to control leaks, if released the chemical could pose an immediate danger to anyone in the area. At minus 33 degrees Celsius, the chemical has the potential to burn skin.
The ammonia only poses an immediate danger since the tank has an automatic safety device that detects a leak. The device shuts down the tank system and starts ventilating an area. The ammonia mixes with water and thus is chemically altered into a less dangerous solution. Once airborne, the ammonia evaporates after it reaches 38 degrees Fahrenheit and it no longer poses any danger.
Nevada Army Guard Maj. Amadeo Flores, the liaison officer at the site, said the hazardous-leak scenario was a good test of the cooperation of various government agencies.
â€œWeâ€™re checking how local, state, and military officials work together,â€ Flores said. â€œWeâ€™ve never done this before so itâ€™s good to know. We donâ€™t want any surprises if it happens.â€
In the event of an actual leak, Wal-Mart has provided special training for its staff.
â€œWal-Mart has a hazardous materials team to respond,â€ said Glenda Spence, the asset protection supervisor for the distribution center. â€œThe crew members get into hazmat suits. They ensure that the area is clear and make sure the tankâ€™s safety operations have kicked in.
â€œThey also check the air to ensure that the building is safe. Alarms will go off and a team is trained to respond. No less than six team members on any shift are trained and able to respond.â€
Jeff Head, hazardous materials instructor for Haz-Mert, Inc., trains Wal-Martâ€™s hazmat teams to react in actual emergencies. He said their own internal hazmat team was capable of handling just about any situation with their special equipment.
â€œWal-Mart is very proactive,â€ Head said. â€œHowever, you donâ€™t realize how chaotic this could be until you see all of these people together.â€
Head travels the country to train hazmat teams and believes training is important for Nevada and the entire country.
â€œMany states are less prepared than Nevada,â€ he said.
He said exercises similar to Vigilant Guard would help other states.
â€œIf we get awareness levels up, I think participation will increase,â€ Head said.
The team Head trained for Wal-Mart put on special hazmat suits to keep them safe from the chemical. Some team members rescued volunteer victims that pretended to have injuries, while others created a station to decontaminate people that came out of the building.
â€œIt was a great experience. I was happy to be a volunteer,â€ said Blakely McClellan, a Wal-Mart employee who played a victim. â€œIt shows how everybody has come together.â€
Evacuating people from a hazardous area and keeping civilians away from the site is another concern for Wal-Mart and emergency officials. Anyone in the immediate area would be evacuated as a safety precaution in a real-world incident. To make the training as real as possible, National Guard soldiers set up checkpoints and patrolled the area.
â€œWe were tasked to provide site security,â€ said 1st Lt. Wes Mewes, executive officer for the 485th Military Police Company from Fallon. â€œIn addition, our focus is to keep people from going into the facility.â€
The Virginia City Sheriffâ€™s department and Storey County firefighters also had members present to help provide security and assist the volunteer victims.