The fire service continues to experience concerns related to the various hazards that face our communities; responders face new challenges every day. The transportation of crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials create incidents in local communities that aren’t prepared to respond to them.
The key to a safe, effective emergency response is proper planning and preparedness. One tool for conducting a capabilities analysis is a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis. Local communities have a responsibility to conduct risk assessments and to communicate information about potential hazards to their citizens.
In addition, industries that produce or transport crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials that travel through or are stored in a community have an obligation to reduce risks by working with local officials to minimize the potential harm from low-frequency, high-hazard, high-traffic incidents.
The transportation of crude oil has grabbed headlines as North America experiences an energy production boom. Area such as North Dakota and Montana are experiencing increased production of crude oil from the Bakken Formation, which then must be transported cross-country to refineries and petrochemical facilities.
Based on congressional testimony by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), there has been a dramatic increase in the transportation of crude oil using the national rail system. According to AAR, in 2008, U.S. Class I railroads transported 9,500 carloads of crude oil. This amount skyrocketed to nearly 234,000 carloads in 2012; it was estimated at 400,000 carloads in 2013.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the volume of crude oil moving by rail has quadrupled in less than a decade.
Events over the past two years in Quebec, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia have shown that accidents can happen as crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials are transported. These incidents have emphasized the need for proper planning and training with a focus on hazmat-response considerations.
Fire departments must be prepared to respond to various hazardous materials and how they’re transported. This preparation includes connecting stakeholders, such as local emergency-planning committees (LEPCs) and emergency-management agencies, to plan for and respond safely and effectively to such incidents.
Many first responders located in rural areas where rail shipments occur lack adequate funding and staffing for conducting the necessary planning and required training, much less obtaining the specialized resources needed to respond to incidents involving these types of fuels.
It’s important to note that fire departments that don’t have rail lines in their own jurisdictions may be part of a mutual-aid system and may be called on to respond to a rail incident in a neighboring community. These departments also need hazmat training and planning tools.
The Challenges and Recommendations
Fire departments face challenges in planning for the shipments of hazardous materials through urban, suburban and rural communities across the nation. It can be a daunting task for communities to conduct analyses on low frequency and high-hazard commodities when they’re located in a high-traffic area.
Commodity flow studies provide a vast amount of information that isn’t easily understood. The Transportation Research Board’s Guidebook for Conducting Local Hazardous Materials Commodity Flow Studies provides a template for planners. Most communities lack the funding to conduct this type of research to gather the pertinent information and build an emergency response plan. Industry may be a good source of financial assistance for these endeavors.
As part of the planning process, industry, community planners and first responders should use the LEPC process to identify and plan for potential incidents. The IAFC acknowledges some very effective efforts between communities and industry, but there’s no consistency.
Recent incidents involving crude oil and ethanol demonstrate how hazardous materials have changed and how industry should provide a greater emphasis on community preparedness. What’s needed is a standardized process that maximizes resources and minimizes cost to communities.
A template is also needed for industry to develop emergency plans that outline potential hazards and their planned response that they can in turn share with the community. The Transportation Research Board’s Guide for Communicating Emergency Response Information for Natural Gas and Hazardous Liquids Pipelines is a new resource for better planning and communicating.
As the news reports from recent crude oil incidents have highlighted, local fire departments must be adequately trained to respond to very large flammable-liquid incidents. Training must be centered on a community’s identified risks, hazards, capabilities and needs.
The IAFC believes an effective training program for first responders in communities bordering rail lines with crude oil, ethanol and other flammable-liquid shipments should use a blended approach. This should include both web-based and in-person training.
Web-based training can reach a large number of firefighters and other emergency responders; it’s easy and cost effective to use. All that’s required is access to a web portal through an internet connection or the use of a CD.
It’s also easier to schedule web-based training in the evening or on the weekend when members may have some free time.
Finally, because there’s little travel cost associated with web-based training, it’s much more cost-effective for departments than must reach a wide population of first responders.
The IAFC Role
The IAFC has extensive experience in delivering both web-based and in-person training.
Through the IAFC’s online Hydrogen Response Considerations class, more than 7,500 first responders were effectively trained.
Through a partnership with the Federal Railroad Administration and PHMSA, the IAFC successfully assisted hazmat responders in Massachusetts, Maryland and Louisiana to develop and conduct rural emergency response planning surveys. Those surveys helped rural fire and emergency service organizations develop comprehensive strategic and tactical approaches for hazmat preparedness, including transportation risk assessments and gap analyses.
The IAFC has also developed training in conjunction with the Renewable Fuels Association and other stakeholders to help first responders prepare for and respond to ethanol emergencies. This program, developed under the auspices of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition, trained more than 10,000 first responders through a web-based and distributed-CD approach.
In one example, a train-the-trainer program was presented five times in Pennsylvania to educate the state’s hazmat instructors. This blended training program is now on its second version.
At a time when many organizations continue to struggle with budget cuts and increasing service demands and must adapt to other emerging hazards, the proliferation of alternative fuels has added more complexity to response considerations. Emergency responders can’t ignore the challenges that exist in the transportation and use of those commodities.
Emergency response considerations for alternative-fuel incidents must include the transportation industry, and they should be based on sound planning, appropriate and effective responder training, adequate funding and the development of effective response systems to safely mitigate incidents when they occur.