NTSB examines communication gaps at East Palestine train derailment hearing

While technological tools to inform local emergency service providers responding to a train derailment have a useful purpose, there are still gaps in how best to disseminate key initial information, according to witnesses at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio.

Key information includes whether a freight train derailment includes rail cars carrying hazardous materials and where those cars might be located. It also includes a train’s consist, or what rail cars make up the train.

While there are apps used by federal agencies and the freight rail industry — such as the AskRail app — one potential problem is ensuring that emergency responders have a good connection to the apps. Train derailments can occur in rural areas and so there might need to be other ways to get information. Emergency responders also might not know to seek out the train crew.

While AskRail is a good resource for getting information quickly, it might not tell an emergency responder what the accident is until the responder gets closer to the scene, according to one of the witnesses representing the local fire department.

The AskRail app provides vetted emergency service providers with a way to view the contents of an entire train as well as search whether a rail car on a train is carrying hazardous materials, according to a fact sheet on the Association of American Railroads’ website.

The app also provides a map of nearby railroad mileposts, grade crossing locations, schools and hospitals, as well as instructions on where to establish isolation zones. The app gives emergency contact information for all Class I railroads, Amtrak and some short line railroads, and users can access the U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency response guide. 

Besides having good mobile phone reception to access apps, other issues that came up from local emergency service providers included a need to have better maps that are up-to-date and have GIS capabilities, as well as more centralized communication among local communities. 

The Feb. 3 train derailment occurred near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, prompting Pennsylvania emergency service providers to also respond as the situation unfolded.

However, there is no centralized communication occurring with local jurisdictions, no common radio frequencies and “a centralized 911 center would be a big step forward,” said Keith Drabick, a hearing witness representing the East Palestine Fire Department.

Although hearing witnesses said they want more information that could improve their response to a train derailment, another challenge is that there needs to be a way to make that information digestible. 

This includes receiving notifications on what hazardous materials might be on trains passing by local communities. Receiving all that information might be overwhelming for small communities that don’t have the resources to manage that incoming data, especially for communities where multiple trains pass by each day, some witnesses said.

The witnesses also all agreed that there should continue to be funding to support training for emergency responders.

Scott Deutsch, an NS regional manager for hazardous materials, said the railroad’s training includes requiring crew members to be able to identify the type of rail car and what substances could be inside of it without using a placard or markings on the rail car to help inform them.

NS has also conducted accident simulations with crews as well as emergency responders, Deutsch said. In an April post on NS’ website, the railroad said it has developed a program that provides continued training opportunities with first responders, including classroom, web-based and online resources, tabletops drills, full-scale emergency response exercises and high-level training opportunities at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. NS (NYSE: NSC) is also building an emergency responder training center in Ohio.

NTSB’s hearing, which will be conducted on Thursday and Friday, will focus on four main areas: 

​hazard communications and emergency responder preparedness for the initial emergency response; circumstances that led to the decision to vent and burn five vinyl chloride tank cars; freight car bearing failure modes and wayside detection systems; and tank car derailment damage, crashworthiness and hazardous materials package information.

The agenda for both days is available here, and NTSB’s docket on the incident, which includes reports stating facts on the derailment, is available here.

According to one of those reports, an eastbound, general merchandise NS train experienced a derailment at about 8:54 p.m. ET on Feb. 3. Thirty-eight rail cars derailed and a fire ensued, damaging an additional 12 cars. No fatalities or injuries were reported, and there was an initial 1-mile evacuation zone due to the release of hazardous materials. 

The decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride tank cars occurred on Feb. 6 after concern that one of the cars could pose an explosion hazard because the inside temperature was still rising, according to NTSB’s initial report on the incident.

PHMSA proposes rule on providing hazmat information to first responders

Ahead of NTSB’s two-day hearing on East Palestine, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced separately Wednesday that it is proposing a new rule that would require railroads to provide real-time information about rail hazmat shipments in a train consist that authorized emergency personnel can access.

If the railroad becomes aware of any accident involving hazardous materials, the railroad would be required to “push” that information to authorized local first response personnel as soon as it can. All railroad classes would be required to comply with the regulation.

The proposed rule has garnered support from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). “Fire fighters are often first to show up at many emergencies, including train derailments and HazMat incidents. Accurate, up-to-date information about train contents is critical to keep first responders and the communities they serve safe,” IAFF General President Edward A. Kelly said in a Wednesday news release. “The IAFF strongly supports the Department of Transportation’s new rule that would give fire fighters real-time data allowing for safer responses.”

According to NTSB, the information the railroads would provide would include the quantity and position of the shipment on the train, the shipment’s origin and destination and a designated emergency point of contact at the railroad. The railroad would provide this information in hard copy and electronic forms. 

PHMSA said the proposed rule is a response to provisions in the FAST Act calling for such regulation. 

The proposed rule follows other recent actions by PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration to bolster rail safety, including making more than $25 million in funding available to help train first responders and strengthen safety programs and issuing safety advisories to railroad companies about replacing tank car covers and urging a faster transition from DOT-111s to DOT 117s rail cars, PHMSA said. 

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