In August, the IAFC Hazmat Center sent a team to Alaska to present six Regional Rail Response (RRR) training sessions under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration 2017 ALERT Grant program. This training brings together local and regional agencies to help them better understand the necessary and appropriate response efforts and roles should a derailment or incident occur; they also provide a venue to discuss unified and coordinated response activities to a train-derailment scenario.
The team visited six cities and towns in two weeks, from Fairbanks to Bear Creek, and trained over 140 first responders. The Hazmat Center staff partnered with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) to provide instructor-led trainings. The National Volunteer Fire Council and International Association of Fire Fighters provided outreach and information-sharing for the training. The Alaska Railroad provided the six training locations and their instructors to answer questions specifically about the rail system.
Additional partnerships were born out of these efforts. The IAFC joined with the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and the Short Line Safety Institute (SLSI) with the purpose of solidifying the training initiative for both the short-line railroad personnel and the first responders who would respond to and operate at rail emergencies. A representative from Alaska Railroad joined the IAFC team to present a portion of the training from the rail perspective.
The combined efforts afforded the attendees a well-rounded perspective, covering thoroughly the necessary areas of planning for and response to a rail event. It added both content width and breadth to an already excellent course, which is not always easy to do. Dave Saitta, the ISFSI representative and a member of the team, reflected on the importance of the trip:
It was a fantastic networking opportunity for myself as well as those in attendance that included local fire departments, Alaskan Railroad and State of Alaska representatives, at each of our deliveries. A unique training opportunity that allowed us to learn from our students as much as we shared with them.
This was the first time that the IAFC, ASLRRA and SLSI worked together on such a project, and we are happy to report that it was a success. Continuing our combined efforts will bolster our efforts to increase the quality and quantity of training to the first responders within the short line’s coverage area, thereby strengthening a communities’ response.
In addition to both career and volunteer fire departments, a number of state and national agencies participated in the trainings:
- Interior Region EMS Council Inc.
- Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
- Local CERT team members
- State of Alaska DOT
- Alaska Railroad representatives
- Local law enforcement
- Park rangers
- American Red Cross of Alaska
- National Weather Service
Alaska is unique in that it has the only rail system in the United States that must prepare an emergency-response plan for trains with both freight and passengers as part of the same train. Tabletop exercises highlighted a derailment with freight and passengers; participants discussed how best to address the issue as a collaborative unit with the Alaska Railroad attendees. Because of the Alaska RRR trainings, the participants gained:
- An understanding of why preplanning is vital to an effective response
- An understanding of the response disciplines and associated roles during a response to a rail incident
- Knowledge about the industry and rail lines within their regions
- An understanding about the need for a coordinated effort when responding to an incident
- Knowledge of how to effectively manage available resources
The tabletop exercises, while not full-scale, allowed participants to identify issues they would have to deal with during a rail incident affecting the surrounding environment and what additional resources or agency assistance they would need.
Attendees were receptive and appreciated that we came all the way from the East Coast of the United States to train them. They knew their capabilities to handle a train incident was very limited, but they were surprised to learn the number of public-safety measures they not only can but need to implement to keep responders and the communities safe when mitigating an incident.
Attendees also valued that the incidents were real in design and focus and were set in their communities and response areas, especially because each location had its unique issues, such as resources, topography and resource assistance when it came to the tabletop scenario. Here are some comments the team received about the trainings:
The tabletop exercise gave us a good opportunity to really nail down what the first hour priorities would be. – Willow attendee
I am a newer volunteer firefighter, so my scope of knowledge is very limited. I learned a lot about how to stage for events like this and understand why we do things like stay away from the tracks. I especially liked the group exercises (table talk, very effective learning tool). – Girdwood attendee
This class brought a critical issue into the conversations: wildland involvement since it’s a huge issue in the state and is found everywhere. Very specific to our area. – Healy attendee
Subject-matter experts presented a variety of material that should improve intra-agency awareness and community awareness. – Wasilla attendee
The instructors were amazing. They brought a wealth of knowledge, and also facilitated the group interactions of all entities that were in attendance. – Wasilla attendee
In a letter sent to the IAFC, Tom Covington of Alaska Railroad also offered very positive feedback:
Since the training, I’ve had numerous discussions with the local response groups that attended and have had nothing but positive feedback. The training has provided an interest for additional and continued training together. Last week we had a required Emergency Response Drill at one of the previously participating communities. It was obvious that the positive relationship that was started during the IAFC sessions definitely continued during the recent exercise. I really hope the opportunity to train with IAFC will happen again as we will definitely be interested in participating.
The training was designed to bring local and regional agencies together to better understand response efforts, and we were able to accomplish just that. As one of our instructors, James Rist, concluded, it was an adventure and one that we would go on again in a heartbeat.