Preparing for Toxic Cargo: Emergency Preparedness for Train Accidents and Toxic Spills

A look at preparedness for train derailments which involve hazardous materials


Emergency-response authorities and survivors of deadly train accidents say more public education is essential. And some railroad employees think they could use more training.

Catastrophic fires in the San Bernardino Mountains two years ago show the importance of readiness.

Residents were prepared to evacuate when the fires raced toward their homes because groups such as Mountain Area Safety Task Force, a group that held public meetings and mailed educational materials, had helped prepare the public.

A similar effort would dramatically increase public awareness and safety along the rails, authorities said. "It's something that needs to be addressed," said Gail Beckham, hazardous materials coordinator for San Bernardino County.

More than 1.5 million people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties live within a mile of railroad tracks.

EMERGENCY CALL SYSTEM

Many potential solutions to the risk from trains carrying hazardous cargo are costly, to either the railroads or local governments.

San Bernardino's homeland security director, police Lt. Don Soderbloom, proposed creating an automated emergency calling system, which can notify residents in any area of the city of a disaster and the measures they should take.

The idea initially drew support. But the proposal ultimately was rejected because it was deemed too costly, Soderbloom said.

Michael Eckley, San Bernardino's public systems manager, said start-up costs for about 20 phone lines were estimated in the $50,000 range, but many more lines would be needed in the city of almost 200,000. Maintaining the system and updating phone numbers also would be a significant expense, he said.

Soderbloom said he plans to resubmit the proposal soon.

San Bernardino County has set up a telephone emergency notification system to inform mountain and foothill residents of floods, fires or other natural disasters, San Bernardino County Fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said. But the system is not equipped to handle a derailment or chemical spill in lowland areas. Martinez said the county has plans to expand the system throughout all county areas early next year.

Riverside County does not have an automated phone messaging system in place for disasters. Greg Stoddard, the county's chief technology officer, said the county has issued a request seeking proposals from vendors of such systems.

Riverside's city police and fire departments have a calling system to contact homes and businesses in the event of a chemical release or other emergency, said Carmen Nieves, city emergency coordinator.

TRAIN CREW EDUCATION

After a train derailed in San Bernardino in April, investigators blamed faulty track inspections and erroneous cargo lists for causing the accident and complicating the emergency response.

Railroad employees have differing views about whether they are adequately trained to deal with hazardous materials.

Most workers are not, according to Ray Enriquez, a Union Pacific engineer who teaches safety courses to other employees.

"We have people who have worked here for 30 years, and they start wondering what they are carrying," said Enriquez, a 13-year railroad veteran and a union official. After they take the course, he said, "they are glad they have the knowledge, but they're also scared of what they have learned."

If hazardous materials are released, train crews grab the listing of train car contents, evacuate and alert the railroad of the accident location. Train crews are responsible for getting the cargo list to first responders but are not trained to diagnose what has spilled or what should be done about it.

"I run the other way," said Aaron Sawyer, a conductor from Palmdale. "I don't get paid enough for that."

More training would help crews better understand the cargo lists and work with fire departments, Enriquez said.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the company is satisfied employees have enough training.

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