Firefighters train for ‘high risk’ train derailment events

PUEBLO, Colo. — A series of high-profile train derailments across the country is giving new urgency to a special facility where firefighters around the world learn how to respond to dangerous train crashes and leaks.

The “Safety and Emergency Response Training Center” gives responders hands-on experience of train derailments and the dangers associated with them, from leaking chemical barrels to pressurized and potentially explosive tank trucks. While 99.9% of hazardous material shipments arrive safely, according to the railroads, training firefighters at SERTC helps them prepare for worst-case scenarios.

“I’m glad for this knowledge, but I hope I never have to use it,” said intern David Doeger, 52, a firefighter/paramedic from West Chester Township in Ohio, outside Cincinnati . “This is definitely a low-frequency, high-risk type of event.”

CONTEXT:Trains continue to derail across the country, including Thursday in Washington. What is going on?

Train safety gets national attention after Ohio derailment

President Joe Biden has approved a bipartisan proposal pending in Congress to dramatically increase training for firefighters to respond to hazmat derailments. The bill’s sponsors introduced the legislation shortly after the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.

In that accident, first responders set fire to some of the leaking tank cars containing pressurized flammable gas, calculating that the fire posed less danger to the community than a possible explosion. Trains regularly carry dangerous chemicals like chlorine, vinyl chloride, molten sulfur and crude oil.

Training in Colorado

On a recent snowy day in Pueblo, firefighters from departments across the country and Canada climbed over a crumpled gas tanker truck at the SERTC facility, learning how to safely offload or flare gas to avoid a blast.

They also practiced sealing leaking barrels and pumping fuel from a wrecked locomotive, learned how to open and close different types of valves, and read signs indicating what tank cars are carrying.

“We try to give them the most realistic training possible so that when they show up to an incident, they can respond in a safe and effective manner,” said Kari Gonzales, president and CEO of MxV Rail, which operates installation on behalf. railroads and FEMA.

The name MxV is a nod to the equation for calculating momentum – mass multiplied by speed – and reflects the challenge of managing heavy, moving trains.

Firefighters in the United States and Canada work with hoses and pressure vessels as part of training on how to unload or "to burst" a leaking tank car at the Safety and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado.

Approximately 2,000 firefighters trained per year

Federal grants pay for the training, and about 2,000 firefighters complete the program each year, Gonzales said. Freight railways are also sending their own employees through the program, she said, and departments can also access virtual training. The training is aimed at services in local authorities with railways.

As firefighters warmed up after practicing unloading a tank truck, intern Tony Garza, 38, said he was reassured to learn that firefighters across the country use similar language and approaches to manage disaster response. A lieutenant in his small department in Amory, Mississippi, Garza said any major spill response would require other departments to be called in for help.

“We all use the same playbook now,” he said. “We take things that I’ve always read about and actually do them, practicing those skills.”

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