Fire officials say rail safety proposal will not work

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By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

ONEONTA, N.Y. — Local officials interviewed Thursday were split on a proposal by Sen. Charles Schmer, D-N.Y., that would require rail companies to notify first responders when they plan to transport potentially hazardous material through their communities.

Sen. Schumer is proposing regulations that would require railways to contact local first responders when such a situation arises.This follows a request from officials in Rockland and Orange counties who have unsuccessfully asked to be notified.

Canadian Pacific Railway operates through this area, having purchased the Delaware and Hudson Railroad in 1991. Spokesman Ed Greenberg said while he couldn’t comment on Schumer’s proposal, his firm provides such information now if requested by local agencies. For security reasons he cannot provide such information on such specifics to the public, he said. However, safety is part of an ongoing collaboration with first responders that includes regular updates and emergency preparedness sessions, including exercises on equipment and training.

“We take it seriously,” he said. “One incident is one too many.”

The rail industry is extensively regulated, but the company has its own set of operating protocols in place. This includes regular inspection of track and equipment. “We have a good safety record but we are continually working to be safer by investing billions in state of the art equipment.” He did not have information available on when the last accident was. But local agencies agreed the company has a good safety record.

Otsego County Emergency Services Coordinator Kevin Ritton said while propane, gasoline and different chemicals regularly move through the rails, regular notification is not needed. Information on what is being carried should take about 15-20 minutes to learn, either through the train manifest that it carries on board, or by hotline with the railway. He is not aware of any localities that receive regular notifications. If that was required, his concern is that it could overwhelm local resources. The last major incident in this area was a D&H derailment near Emmons that caused a propane explosion in February 1974 that injured 56. Since then, fire departments approach a scene with greater caution, Ritton said. With the addition of cell phones and computers, there are many ways to gather the necessary information and respond appropriately.

Oneonta Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon said the current system that calls for the county dispatchers to be the first point of contact works well. The Schumer proposal would be “like the boy who cried wolf,” he said.

Historically the railroad is one of the safest modes of transportation. But, if his department is called to a scene, initially it would keep a safe distance away, using binoculars to identify the containers and any hazardous substance, he said. It would try to contact the engineer or conductor to help identify the substance. If not, CP Rail has a 24/7 hotline.

The fire department, like other first responders contacted, uses the Department of Transportation’s “Emergency Response Guidebook” for its step-by-step plans for its approach in handling hazardous material. It can be used to identify rail cars and locate where they are marked to tell first responders what is inside, he said. For instance, crude oil petroleum has a guide number of 128 in the book. It tells the firefighter the material is highly flammable and will be easily ignited by heat sparks or flames. It recommends firefighters use self contained breathing apparatus. If a rail car is involved, “consider initial evacuation of 1/2 mile in all directions.”

The department has a “code red” system that allows for mass calling if an evacuation is needed, Pidgeon said. Oneonta Public Transit would be used to help transport people if needed. Oneonta police would be used to help notify people, with their public address system, and to aid in traffic control.

The railroad does its part by going slower in the city, Pidgeon said. While there are barriers at many intersections, they can malfunction, so motorists should stop, look and listen when crossing tracks. They have also helped with department training.

Oneonta Police Chief Dennis Nayor said it would be good to have the information, but it wouldn’t change anything unless there was an incident. If the fire department decided an evacuation was needed, his force would knock on doors if necessary to inform people, and use social media. It would assist the fire department with its plans. The two agencies review such procedures in annual hazardous material awareness training.

In Sidney, Police Chief Michael Hood said he would be in favor of the Schumer regulation because it could assist departments in being prepared for such incidents.

“Any information we can gain will be beneficial,” he said.

His agency would assist the fire department in its efforts if such a situation arose.

Sidney Fire Chief Gregory Peck Sr. said the current system, that is similar to the one in Otsego County, is working fine. He can only recall minor railway incidents in the area that occurred in the 1980′s. If there was a derailment, he would notify the railroad and follow procedures in the “Emergency Response Guidebook,” as well as notify police and local agencies.

He tries to have training to review procedures at least once a year, but that can be difficult with a volunteer squad. But, he has seen safety improvements since Canadian Pacific started to run the railroad.

“They have an excellent safety record,” he said.

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(c)2014 The Daily Star (Oneonta, N.Y.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Comments - Add Yours

  • David R Marsh

    Schumer should stick to something he might understand .Rail transport and Rail safety he has no knowledge of.The problems in this country come from people who want to regulate things like this.