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3 important things to know about train derailment response

Tabletop exercises and relationships with railway officials will help with scene management in the event of a train derailment


The rail system has developed an extensive response structure that is prepared to address most any type of emergency that is related to the railway. However there is a constant risk of derailment. Pre-planning and training will help your department understand and mitigate the challenges of train derailment.

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If there are train tracks in your response area I am sure you have heard this, “If public only knew what rolls through here on those tracks.”

I have heard that refrain countless times over the many years in the fire service. The civilian who drives over a railroad crossing every day and at times sits in their car as a long line of boxcars, tankers and hoppers rolls past, never really considers what is in those train cars. However, the contents of those train cars is quite often hazardous material that could cause major damage to the surrounding area if there was a train derailment.

The rail transportation system in the United States covers hundreds of thousands of miles and is a critical part of our overall transportation infrastructure. The rail system is considered the safest method of transporting large quantities of hazardous materials.

The rail system has developed an extensive response structure that is prepared to address most any type of emergency that is related to the railway. However there is a constant risk of derailment. Pre-planning and training will help your department understand and mitigate the challenges of train derailment. The primary challenges include the potential for:

  • A large-scale incident
  • Difficult access to the scene
  • A hazardous material release
  • Fire and explosions
  • Multiple responding agencies
  • Civilian injury, illness and evacuation
  • Long duration response

Mitigation starts with the relationships built before the incident and progresses to utilization of the Incident Management System and applying the full compliment of available resources. Here are three things to know about fire department response to a train derailment.

1. Relationships with railway officials

The Federal Railroad Administration falls within the U.S. Department of Transportation and has a mission to provide the “safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future.”

Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 225, Railroad Accidents/Incidents: Reports Classification, and Investigations is the regulation on reporting railroad accidents and incidents. The main objective of the regulation is to obtain good accurate information on possible risk and assist in the development of risk reduction programs.

The FRA has developed several railroad safety programs to assist railroad personnel and local agencies. Contact your local railway and take advantage of these safety programs and training.

Establish long lasting relationships with local railway officials, so when there is an event you are well aware what your role is and they know what to expect from their local fire organization. Consider regular meetings, classroom presentations and fireground training to build and strengthen relationships.

2. Train derailment scene management

When responding to a train derailment a well-coordinated starts with scene management and knowledge of the National Incident Management System at all levels. A derailment will not be a quick event but can last for days and involve multiple public and private organizations that must work together with a common goal. In addition to the railway officials and fire department many other agencies and partners are likely to respond, including:

  • Local and state police to control access to the scene or evacuate civilians
  • Public works and transportation officials for traffic incident management, rerouting and signage
  • County and state emergency management
  • EMS for patient care and responder rehab
  • American Red Cross for emergency shelter
  • Public health and social services for
  • Agricultural and environmental officials to monitor for hazardous materials
  • Humane society and animal control officials to care for pets and farm animals

As simple as it may sound to use the Incident Management System, sometimes it is not and goals can vary between agencies. Start the incident off in the right direction and establish an incident command post at a safe location and establish short and long-term objectives. Of course, the very first objective should be the safety of your personnel, as well as the public.

3. Resources for train derailment response

The railway will bring the cavalry. They have the resources to make the world right again.

I once served as a deputy incident commander on a train derailment and we were just beginning to evaluate the condition of the many railcars that we had off the track when a senior railway representative arrived on scene. We had established a command post in a large parking lot about a quarter mile from the railroad that had been secured for us to utilize during this incident. We met with the railway representative to further establish our goals, as he was bringing additional staffing to assist.

When we stepped out of the command vehicle, the parking lot was packed with railway trucks, cranes and other types of equipment to allow them to get the track open and trains running as soon as possible. Every minute the track is blocked they were losing money. The railway also understands the reputational within the community and wants to repair that, at any cost.

Get to know your local railway officials and build a strong and lasting relationship. Conduct tabletop exercises with all response partners and work out concerns in a controlled environment not at the scene of a major incident. Make sure to involve emergency management and other county or city agencies, such as public works, law enforcement, and transportation in planning and exercises.

Be safe and train hard.

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.