Tag Archives: National Volunteer Fire Council

As oil trains roll across America, volunteer firefighters face big risk

Repost from Reuters

As oil trains roll across America, volunteer firefighters face big risk

By Edward McAllister, Mar 23, 2015 4:45pm EDT
Firefighters' jackets and helmets are hung on a wall in the main fire hall in West Webster, New York, December 28, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Firefighters’ jackets and helmets are hung on a wall in the main fire hall in West Webster, New York, December 28, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

(Reuters) – Volunteers at the Galena, Illinois, fire department were hosing down the smoldering wreck of a derailed BNSF oil train on the east bank of the Mississippi River on March 5 when a fire suddenly flared beyond their control. Minutes later, the blaze reached above the treetops, visible for miles around.

“They dropped the hoses and got out” when the flames started rising, said Charles Pedersen, emergency manager for Jo Daviess County, a rural area near the Iowa border which includes Galena. “Ten more minutes and we would have lost them all.”

No one was hurt in the fire, which burned for days, fed by oil leaking from the ruptured tank cars. But an increase in explosive accidents in North America this year highlights the risks that thousands of rural fire departments face as shipments of oil by rail grow and regulators call for improved train car standards.

Nearly two years after a crude oil train derailed, exploded and killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013, there are no uniform U.S. standards for oil train safety procedures, and training varies widely across the country, according to interviews with firefighters and experts in oil train derailments and training.

About 2,500 fire departments are adjacent to rail lines transporting oil in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa alone, according to figures provided by the Department of Transportation, but no nationwide statistics exist. The DOT does not know which of these fire departments are in need of training, a spokesman said.

The scenario concerns experts who say more needs to be done for sparsely equipped, rural, mostly volunteer-run fire departments to prepare as oil train accidents increase. Already this year, four oil trains have derailed and exploded in North America, double last year’s tally.

No deaths have occurred as a result of U.S. derailments. Oil trains have been a consistent feature on U.S. rails only since 2009.

“Is it acceptable that we just let these fires burn out?” said Thomas Miller, board member of the National Volunteer Fire Council and principal at the National Fire Protection Association, which draws up training guidelines.

“We have to have a comprehensive plan to identify training levels required and to make sure training is available,” he said.

CART BEFORE HORSE

Railroads have increased safety training in the nearly two years since Lac-Megantic, a period during which nine trains have derailed and exploded in North America.

Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF, CSX Corp, Norfolk Southern Corp and other railroads have bolstered their own network of hundreds of hazardous-materials experts and equipment centers dotted around the country that react if an accident occurs.

The major North American railroads last year spent $5 million to send more than 1,500 first responders on a new three-day oil train program in Pueblo, Colorado, the first site dedicated to oil derailment training in the United States.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is developing an oil derailment training module, expected to be completed in May.

But PHMSA funding to state and tribal governments for hazmat training has declined from $21.1 million in 2010 to $20.2 million last year, even as oil derailments increased. Moreover, interviews with fire departments across the country reveal stark disparities in training.

In Galena, where up to 50 oil trains roll through each week, the fire department had received some basic hazmat training provided by BNSF last year. But when the train came off the rails in March, Galena firefighters were still waiting for a slot at the Pueblo, Colorado facility.

“It was a bit cart-before-the-horse,” said Galena volunteer fire chief Randy Beadle. “It just happened that we had an incident before we could get the guys out there” to Pueblo, he said.

It is unclear what exactly the Galena firefighters might have done differently given proper training and greater resources, but other firefighters who have received extensive training say it is vital to countering an oil train blaze safely.

In Casselton, North Dakota, the fire department has been “bombarded” with training after an oil train collided with a derailed soybean train in December 2013, setting 21 oil cars ablaze and causing a fireball whose heat was felt from over a quarter of a mile away, said Casselton’s volunteer fire chief, Tim McLean.

Before that accident, McLean and his 28-strong fire team “had no idea oil trains were that explosive,” said McLean, a corn and soy farmer. Since then, eight firefighters from the department have been to the Pueblo site for intensive training and more will attend this year.

In Pembroke, Virginia, where CSX rerouted some crude oil trains last month after a derailment damaged its track in West Virginia, the volunteer department has had no specific oil training, said fire department president Jerry Gautier.

“We have reached thousands of people for hydrogen and ethanol training, but the oil program is in its infancy,” said Rick Edinger, a member of the hazardous material committee at the International Fire Chiefs Association. “It could take a couple of years to roll out.”

Meanwhile, oil train accidents remain at the front of people’s minds in Galena, especially for Pedersen, the emergency manager in Jo Daviess county, one of the busiest areas in Illinois for oil trains.

“Every time I hear a train go by now, I think a little differently about it,” he said.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)
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    Oil train fires require SWAT teams, veteran firefighters tell states

    Repost from The Island Packet, Beaufort, SC

    Oil train fires require SWAT teams, veteran firefighters tell states

    By Curtis Tate  |  McClatchy Washington Bureau  |  June 17, 2014

    — A pair of Texans with decades of firefighting experience is encouraging state and local government leaders to consider establishing SWAT-like response teams for crude oil train fires.

    A series of derailments of trains loaded with crude oil in the past year has exposed numerous safety vulnerabilities, including the integrity of the rail cars, the condition of the tracks and the way the trains are operated.

    It’s also revealed a yawning gap in emergency response. Most fire departments across the country are simply not trained or equipped to fight the enormous fires seen in recent derailments.

    “Emergency response is the most difficult part,” said Bob Andrews, founder and president of the San Antonio-based Bob Andrews Group, who has both firefighting experience and knowledge of the rail industry.

    Groups representing firefighters, fire chiefs and emergency management agencies have testified in Congress in recent months that derailments such as those in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota are beyond their response capabilities.

    “There’s only so much training you can do,” said Sam Goldwater, Andrews’ business partner. “Our first responders are pretty much maxed out.”

    Andrews and Goldwater said they’ve received a favorable response so far from the state and federal officials they’ve approached. Several states have expressed interest in their plan, but a proposal for a specialty fire department in the Philadelphia region is the furthest along. They envision for their proposal to be a mix of public and private funds.

    “We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to work something out in Pennsylvania,” Andrews said after a recent meeting with state officials.

    Entire trains of tank cars loaded with crude oil snake through Pennsylvania’s capital city every day, bound for refineries and terminals along the East Coast. The trains carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and western Canadian tar sands oil to a cluster of refineries and barge terminals in the Philadelphia area.

    Andrews and Goldwater say that airports and refineries have their own firefighting teams with special expertise and equipment. And, they say, that’s precisely what’s demanded by the rise in crude oil shipments by rail.

    “You need the airport idea,” Goldwater said, “but you need it for the 1,400 miles between North Dakota and the Delaware River.”

    In March testimony before a Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee, Andrews said that the nation’s 783,000 volunteer firefighters are dedicated to their work. But according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, their ranks have declined 13 percent since 1984.

    “It is not fair for the community, at the local or state level, to create an environment where well-meaning volunteers will feel compelled to commit themselves to conducting highly-hazardous operations, that they are neither trained, nor equipped to perform,” Andrews testified.

    One such incident took place in West, Texas, in April 2013. A massive explosion at a fertilizer storage facility killed 11 firefighters from five departments. In July last year, a 72-car train of Bakken crude oil rolled away and derailed at high speed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The inferno killed 47 people and leveled much of the business district.

    “Volunteer fire fighters and emergency response personnel being thrust into catastrophic events without adequate training or resources is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed,” wrote the National Transportation Safety Board after a toxic chemical leak from a rail car in November 2012 in Paulsboro, N.J.

    Tim Burn, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that a broad-based training program was still the best approach.

    “It is the duty of government to provide the resources needed for hazmat response,” he said, “and this public safety discussion should not be driven by profit motive.”

    Goldwater said he and Andrews expected a return on their investment. However, he added, if anyone wanted to make lots of money, “this is not the thing to do.”

    So far, the impulse of government and industry has been to simply fund more training for emergency personnel. But Andrews said that might not be the most effective approach. The firefighting profession experiences an attrition rate of about 20 percent a year. Call volumes have increased, putting more pressure on volunteer and career firefighters alike. It’s difficult for volunteers with full-time jobs to take off time for training, and most departments can’t afford to pay for it.

    The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy organization, has offered to train 1,500 emergency responders at its rail testing facility in Pueblo, Colo. But with the random and rare nature of train derailments, the odds aren’t good that a limited number of trained personnel scattered across the country will be where they’re needed when something happens.

    Andrews and Goldwater say their plans would be geographically tailored. Philadelphia is a major destination for crude oil, so its response needs may be different from places such as Albany, N.Y., or Sacramento, Calif., where oil trains pass through.

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