Hazmat Doesn’t Care if You’re a Volunteer

By Steve Blackistone

Scene of Paulsborto, NJ derailmentLast week, the Board met to discuss and adopt a report on a derailment and hazmat release that occurred in Paulsboro, NJ. On November 30, 2012, just as commuters were heading to work and parents were getting children ready for school, a Conrail train derailed four cars while crossing a bridge over a creek near the center of town. One tank car was breached, releasing about 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and creating a vapor cloud that engulfed the scene immediately following the accident. The first 911 call came from the home of Paulsboro’s Deputy Fire Chief, which is located right next to the derailment site. The Deputy Fire Chief then established a command post at his residence, about 50 yards from the ruptured tank car. Arriving units congregated there, within the vinyl chloride cloud. Nearly 6 hours passed before the command post was moved to a safer location away from the derailment.

Paulsboro is a town of approximately 6,000 people in southern New Jersey, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport. The Paulsboro Fire Department is an all-volunteer department with about 25 members. This was a once-in-a-career event for the Fire Chief who took command of the incident, as it would be for almost any fire department. And, I have no doubt that he was confronted with the need to quickly make a series of critical decisions in a chaotic situation. Unfortunately, however, NTSB found that emergency responders were unnecessarily exposed to this hazardous material. As a long-time volunteer firefighter in Bethesda, Maryland, that finding hit home for me.

Within minutes responders had information that the leaking tank car had a placard with the number 1086. A quick look at the Emergency Response Guide would have told responders that the product was vinyl chloride with a recommended evacuation zone of a half mile. The chief may have been receiving other confusing and incomplete information, but this one fact should have prompted him to move the command post and limit access to the derailment site.

An effective response to any major incident really begins long before the bells ring. Effective pre-planning is critical for a successful operation, especially a large, complex operation such as this derailment. Firefighters must make contact with the important facilities in their first-due area. If you are meeting the factory manager for the first time when his factory is on fire, that is too late. Likewise, departments with rail operations in or near their first due area must reach out to the railroad to arrange a tour or briefing. Paulsboro had not done this, which led to confusion and miscommunication.

Last weekend, I responded to a report of a large propane tank leaking outside a residence in a neighboring jurisdiction. Clearly this was an incident of different magnitude from the Paulsboro derailment. But, the operational principles don’t change. Control the scene, identify the hazard, and the resources necessary to deal with it. Call for help. In this case, the officer on the first-arriving engine company quickly recognized the size of the leak, determined that all occupants were outside the residence, and told incoming units to stage a safe distance away from the scene, based on the ERG guidance. And then, with the scene stabilized, they waited for the hazmat team to arrive and mitigate the issue. While the Paulsboro incident was far larger and more complex, following these basic principles would have improved the outcome.

Volunteer firefighters face unique challenges in keeping up with training. It can be time-consuming, imposing upon the rest of our lives. But, for their own safety, all firefighters should meet the basic training standards outlined in NFPA Standard 472. It is often said in our station that “the fire doesn’t care” whether you are career or volunteer, whether you are a rookie or seasoned veteran, or anything else. The same can be said of hazardous materials.  As NTSB’s investigation of this accident showed, every department, regardless of its size or budget must prepare and train for the hazards that it might face.

Steve Blackistone is the State and Local Government Affairs Coordinator in NTSB’s Office of Communication

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