How to prepare for your own railroad disaster

They don't happen often, but when they do, railroad disasters can quickly overwhelm the best-prepared departments

Over the past year we've seen a number of high-profile railroad-related incidents occur across the United States and Canada.

Freight, passenger and commuter rail transportation remains extremely safe, in a relative sense, as far as miles traveled vs. incident frequency. Yet, the video footage in this story provides a stark reminder of the potentially high stakes when a derailment, fire or other emergency occurs involving a railroad's locomotives, rolling stock and passengers.

Although many firefighters might feel comfortable dealing with a "routine" transportation-related incident along a highway, roadway or waterway, the size, scale and scope of a railroad emergency can quickly overwhelm even the best-prepared community.

According to the United States Fire Administration National Fire Department Census, only 17.4 percent of U.S. fire departments had a specialized Hazmat team in January 2012.

Given this fact, it's crucial that departments with railroad rights-of-way, facilities, or rail-served industries in their service area identify target hazards; establish relationships with railroad officials; perform pre-incident planning; maintain operations-level hazardous materials training and certification; and know where specialist-level Hazmat teams are coming from and how long it will take for them to arrive.

Even with all of this preparation, specialized services beyond the scope of most fire departments might be required to safely and effectively respond to, and recover from, a railroad-related emergency. It's not the Polar Express.

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