Firefighters in a railroad hazardous materials training session. A mobile version of the course will deliver training to rural, volunteer departments. (Photo courtesy of American Association of Railroads)

EDITOR’S NOTE: From 2008 to 2014 the number of railroad tank cars carrying crude oil increased from about 10,000 to nearly half a million. In 2015 there were 304 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In rural areas, the first responders to a rail accident are likely to be small, volunteer fire departments. The railroad industry and the federal government are cooperating to create a mobile training program to help give small departments “a safety boost.” This “Speak Your Piece” was provided by the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Rural communities around the country are gearing up for an important safety boost this year when their first responders will begin receiving specialized training at local fire stations for handling emergencies involving flammable liquids moved by rail.  The hands-on emergency preparedness and response training is being offered to fire fighters who cannot attend the freight rail industry’s training center in Pueblo, Colorado.

Thanks to a $2.4 million award from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Center for Rural Development has partnered with the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., or TTCI, so that rail safety experts can travel the country instructing rural volunteer emergency responders about flammable liquids emergency response and rail incidents involving crude oil.

The program targeting emergency preparedness in rural regions was developed by freight rail safety experts at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center, known as SERTC, in Pueblo. Taking the training course on the road – including materials and classroom instruction in a specialized on-site training trailer equipped with valves, protective housings and other training rail props – is a major development given the time constraints felt by first responders and reinforces just how much the freight rail industry is doing to educate and train the fire fighters and emergency responders serving rural America.

In addition to the remote, direct-delivery program, the PHMSA grant will also fund the creation of a new web-based training program about flammable liquids moved by rail.

At least 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities will receive training in 2016 alone.

Since 2014, when SERTC launched specialized training in crude oil response, SERTC’s training team has mentored more than 3,300 first responders from across the country, both in the classroom and in local communities.

In 2015 alone, 1,795 first responders took the three-day class at Pueblo and experienced derailed cars first hand. More than 800 students registered for the free online training course in 2015, which provides crude-by-rail basics for those who can’t travel to Pueblo. All the while, railroad companies continue to work directly with communities and first responders as well, effectively supplementing the work of these training programs and broadening the educational outreach to some 20,000 additional first responders.

Firefighters train for a railroad-based oil spill. (Photo courtesy of American Association of Railroads)

“Many firefighters are new to the rigors of [crude-by-rail] safety when they arrive at SERTC,” says Glen Rudner, a safety expert at the center who contributed to a recent “State of the Industry Report” from the Association of American Railroads. “Learning these basics is still a necessary competence.”

At the Pueblo-based training, emergency responders receive personalized instruction over the course of three days to meet their specific needs. Attendees learn about railroad tank cars, the different types of crude oil and how to safely respond to a crude-by-rail emergency based on the capabilities of their community.

The direct-delivery program to remote rural regions is based on the same training model featured on-site at TTCI-SERTC.

“I think this is an absolute ‘must’ for all fire personnel,” says John Sigler, fire chief of Boone, Colorado, and a program graduate. “I am absolutely more prepared to cope with a potential crude oil situation in my community as a result of my SERTC training.”

Much press attention and public scrutiny is triggered when a train, especially one carrying hazardous materials, has an accident. But rural America should be encouraged by what the industry and government are doing to involve their first responders in making a safe rail industry even safer.

Mike Cook is the executive director of Hazardous Materials Compliance and Training at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc.

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