About 200 Columbia Gas of Ohio employees already have been through 26 classes at a new centralized training facility at 1600 Eastgate Parkway in Gahanna.

Mike Breighner, technical training manager for Columbia Gas, said the facility opened about 60 days ago to provide instruction for employees who operate and maintain its natural-gas distribution system.

A grand opening was held May 11 for local officials, first-responders and Columbia employees.

The 28,000-square-foot facility features innovative teaching environments designed to train new employees as well as those transitioning into higher-skilled positions and those interested in enhancing their skills.

In addition to serving company employees, the center will coordinate training with local emergency responders for responding to natural-gas emergencies.

"At Columbia Gas, we are furthering our commitment to become an industry leader in safety and training," said Dan Creekmur, president of Columbia Gas of Ohio.

"Building these new centers is one way we're being responsive and evolving our safety and training. Our single-best asset is our workforce and this is an investment in their future," he said.

Breighner said employees are exposed to trenches at the facility that they would find in the field.

"We teach how to install gas-service lines and (do) repair," he said. "They learn different techniques to join pipes together."

One of the center's main features is an outdoor "Emergency Response Safety Town," a mock neighborhood of mini-houses and businesses complete with underground utilities and meters.

At the miniature town, instructors can create and control various emergency training scenarios, including a natural gas-leak simulation.

Instructors also will use this area to teach other critical skills, such as line locating and marking, leak detection, corrosion monitoring and re-establishing gas service.

Breighner said more hands-on training is available than in past years.

"It used to be more lecture," he said.

"Employees are assigned a coach. We create scenarios where technicians can respond to whatever is thrown at them," he added.

Breighner said the biggest concern is damage prevention.

"We've done a lot with GPS technology," he said.

Inside the center are training simulators that allow employees to experience various work activities in a controlled and safe environment.

A slip-trip-and-fall simulator teaches employees how to avoid falls, which are the leading cause of injuries at most utilities.

The facility also includes an excavator simulator and health and safety simulators.

Lab areas are designated for hands-on instruction and practice.

"My goal is to make sure the training rooms are utilized," Breighner said.

A service lab contains a variety of modern and antique gas appliances, allowing employees to learn how to safely relight equipment and identify improper operation.

The "plant crew" lab allows employees to practice laying new distribution pipelines, operating valves and responding to emergency situations.

The "measurement and regulation" lab allows employees to practice maintaining system meters and regulators using compressed air.

A fire-safety area was popular with guests at last week's grand opening.

The controlled outdoor area allows workers to practice fighting natural-gas fires in monitored exercises.

Trainers are able to start and stop the controlled fires with specially designed valves while instructors stand alongside students as they extinguish the fire.

Breighner said Columbia Gas looks forward to building rapport with local first responders, who will be invited to utilize the facility as part of the Columbia Gas Safety School.

The total investment in the new training facility is estimated at $38 million over 20 years.

The training center is the second of four that Columbia's parent company, NiSource Inc., plans to build and operate in its service territory by 2018.

The first facility is in Pennsylvania. Additional facilities are planned in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Columbia Gas of Ohio, with headquarters in Columbus, is Ohio's largest natural-gas utility and one of NiSource's seven regulated utility companies. It has about 1.4 million customers in Ohio.