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East Palestine train derailment: Lessons from disaster

The incident in Ohio serves as a reminder for all first responders to both train and coordinate early and often with community partners


A drone photo shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

The Feb. 3 train derailment and subsequent – and ongoing – hazmat crisis in East Palestine, Ohio, should serve as a reminder to all of us in the fire service of the catastrophic effects of a train or transportation accident within our jurisdictions.

The crash and fire

Just before 9 p.m., a train of the Norfolk and Southern Railroad with approximately 150 cars derailed near the center of East Palestine, a village of 4,000 residents in northeast Ohio near the border with Pennsylvania. The crash ruptured a dozen or more cars carrying hazardous materials, igniting dozens of other cars that subsequently spilled toxic contents into nearby creeks, levies and the soil, and sending huge plumes of toxic smoke into the air.

While firefighters from East Palestine battled these fires with the assistance of departments from throughout northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, there was little they could do to contain the fire that raged for days. The breach of some of the remaining tank cars with explosive charges several days later resulted in a monumental plume of smoke and gases. Among those chemicals released were vinyl chloride, which breaks down into phosgene gas; isobutylene; benzene; and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.

What went wrong

It appears that the major component of the derailment was a “hot” bearing or brake on a rail car. In fact, several days after the Feb. 3 incident, a video of that train, taken some 40 minutes before the derailment, was captured at a crossing, showing not only what appeared to be a hot wheel bearing but also active fire under a rail car.

While it is hard for a train crew to see a problem with 100 or more railcars, I am surprised that the sensors along the rail lines didn’t indicate a problem, or that anyone near the rail line didn’t think it wise to call 911 so that dispatchers could have notified the railroad to have them relay the information of the fire to the engineer or conductor of the train. Pulling the train into a designated rail siding and notifying the local fire department might have prevented the subsequent disaster.

The fire department and citizens of East Palestine deserve our continued support as they try to recover from the disaster in their community. For some citizens and first responders, their lives will never be the same, and yet, I am sure that in many ways, they currently feel deserted by us all.

While the State of Ohio activated its statewide disaster plan calling in resources from around the state, it also used resources from nearby Pennsylvania under the state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). New Palestine residents, however, are still skeptical if the resources of the federal government will be there for them as they face the long-term potential of contamination and health-related issues.

As is so often the case, one of the ways we can show our support is to learn the lessons from these incidents to better prepare our own communities, so the losses experienced by those in East Palestine are not in vain.

Planning and preparations

I previously served as the fire chief for the City of Wyoming (Ohio) Fire and EMS Department. The community bordered Cincinnati on the south.

The eastern border of the city was the northbound railroad crossings, creating a border between Wyoming and the Village of Lockland. This rail traffic amounted to over 2,500 rail cars daily, with approximately 10-15% of that traffic containing hazardous materials. The railroad’s southbound line, carrying the same volume of traffic, was about 3 miles farther east from Wyoming’s border, and ran through both Lockland and the City of Reading.

This rail traffic on both the north and south lines either originated or were destined for the massive Queensgate Yard in the heart of Cincinnati. Smaller rail yards were located along the Lockland/Wyoming line, and there was another, larger rail yard approximately 6 miles north in the City of Sharonville.

The CSX railroad was consistently notifying all the area fire departments of both routine and priority repairs along their rail lines.

While none of the jurisdictions involved in the disaster exercises have experienced derailments, several regularly responded to fires in the train engines. Many times, this was due to the strain on these engines pulling a longer-than-usual number of train cars over uneven terrain. No matter, the departments were ready.

Over a three-year period, the aforementioned community fire departments, along with the Woodlawn Fire Department, conducted table-top simulations and full-scale disaster exercises based on derailment scenarios, all with the support of the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the railroad.

Our full-scale disaster simulated a derailment with hazardous materials flowing into Mill Creek, a creek that, in some areas, was more of a river, flowing through the center of Hamilton County. This waterway goes through residential, commercial and industrial areas as it winds its way downstream to become a tributary of the Ohio River. Unlike the East Palestine derailment, we did not include a simulated ignition of any of the rail cars.

I spoke recently with one of my fellow chief officers from our area who is an active member of the Southwest Ohio Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT). He had spent several days in East Palestine helping to provide resource management and coordination of the fire and hazmat control efforts. From that brief conversation, I could tell this disaster was far more serious than any of the scenarios imagined during our previous disaster exercises.

Take action for your community

How many of us in the fire service have conducted any such disaster exercises in our communities? Have you trained on a 100-car pileup along the interstate in a white-out condition, a mass casualty incident at a local sporting event, a mass shooting at the local high school or, as in this case, a derailment or vehicle accident with a massive fire and subsequent hazmat spill? Each such exercise offers a taste of the experience in handling an incident that extends far beyond that of a single fire and EMS department.

If you are fortunate to have an experienced EMA or LEPC in your area, even your state, the time is now to do four things:

  1. Identify liaisons with your neighboring fire departments, law enforcement and EMA resources. During an actual disaster is not the time to make new acquaintances.
  2. Exercise your disaster plan with a table-top simulation, building to a full-scale disaster drill.
  3. Document those drills and make them the basis for developing both an emergency action plan (EAP) and a continuity of government (COG) plan – separate, yet necessary, documents.
  4. Remember that personnel changes through promotions or retirements happen all the time. Leave some things that can be easily referenced by the next chief officers and their staff.

All-hazards response

In recent years, the fire service has not only taken on additional responsibilities but also learned to adjust its mission to be the all-hazard responders. I hope that all of us in the fire service will learn to prepare for these unthinkable possibilities that may befall our communities. Prepare for them through practice, partnerships and mutual cooperation among the agencies that can come together to mitigate, control and recover from any such occurrences.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.