Taking the Lead: Preparing Responders for New Types of Hazmat Incidents

The transportation of crude oil has grabbed national headlines as the nation experiences an energy-production boom. States such as North Dakota and Montana are experiencing an increased production of crude oil from the Bakken Formation, which then must be transported across the country.

As the events last year in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and Casselton, N.D., demonstrated, accidents can happen as crude oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids are being transported.

Concerns have been raised that crude oil from the Bakken fields has a lower ignition point. In addition, ethanol has different chemical properties than other flammable liquids, and some locomotives are now using liquefied natural gas, which also acts differently from other fuels when it catches fire.

All of these changes have added complexities to hazmat response considerations. Fire departments that have jurisdiction over the areas these products travel through must now be prepared for various fuel properties and modes of transportation. This preparation includes proper planning and training to respond safely and effectively when there is an accident.

However, many of these same departments are composed of volunteers located in rural areas. They don't have adequate time or funding to conduct the necessary planning and dedicated training, nor do they have specialized resources needed for responding to incidents involving these new types of fuels.

It's also important to note that fire departments that don't have rail lines in their jurisdictions may be part of a mutual-aid system and so may be called upon to respond to a rail incident in a neighboring community. These departments also need the same hazmat planning tools and training competencies.

Fire departments must also be adequately trained to respond to flammable liquid incidents.

Fire departments face challenges in planning for the shipments of hazardous materials through urban, suburban and rural communities. It can be a daunting task for communities to complete analyses of commodities in high-traffic areas that are considered low-frequency and high-hazard. Commodity flow studies provide a vast amount of information that is not easily understood.

The Transportation Research Board’s Guidebook for Conducting Local Hazardous Materials Commodity Flow Studies provides a template for planners. But communities are not funded to conduct these types of research projects to gather the pertinent information and build an emergency-response plan. Industry needs to provide direct assistance for this endeavor.

Training must be centered on a community’s identified risks, hazards and needs. The NFPA’s Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents (NFPA 472) and OSHA's standard for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (29 CFR 1910.120) provide core competencies for five established levels of hazmat training.

First-due fire departments, regional fire departments and response teams should all be trained at a minimum to the operations level of NFPA 472 and OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120 to ensure they're adequately prepared to safely and effectively respond to an incident involving crude oil, ethanol or other flammable liquids.

In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads announced an agreement concerning the transportation of crude oil that includes the allocation of $5 million to train emergency responders. Most of this specialized training will focus on hazmat technicians and will be conducted at the Transportation Technology Center Inc. in Pueblo, Colo.

An effective training program for first responders in communities bordering rail lines with crude oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids shipments must utilize a blended approach. This blended approach should contain both web-based and in-person training modalities. Web-based training can play an important role in reaching large numbers of firefighters and other emergency responders who must be prepared to respond to crude-oil and ethanol incidents.

At a time when many emergency services organizations continue to struggle with budget cuts and increasing service demands and are adapting to other emerging hazards, the proliferation of alternative fuels has added another complexity to response considerations. Emergency responders can't ignore the challenges that exist in the transportation and use of such commodities.

Emergency-response considerations with alternative fuels must include the transportation industry and 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.

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