HARRISBURG, Pa. — _ A pair of Texans with decades of firefighting experience is encouraging state and local government leaders to consider establishing SWAT-like response teams for crude oil train fires.
A series of derailments of trains loaded with crude oil in the past year has exposed numerous safety vulnerabilities, including the integrity of the rail cars, the condition of the tracks and the way the trains are operated.
It’s also revealed a yawning gap in emergency response. Most fire departments across the country are simply not trained or equipped to fight the enormous fires seen in recent derailments.
“Emergency response is the most difficult part,” said Bob Andrews, founder and president of the San Antonio-based Bob Andrews Group, who has both firefighting experience and knowledge of the rail industry.
Groups representing firefighters, fire chiefs and emergency management agencies have testified in Congress in recent months that derailments such as those in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota are beyond their response capabilities.
“There’s only so much training you can do,” said Sam Goldwater, Andrews’ business partner. “Our first responders are pretty much maxed out.”
Andrews and Goldwater said they’ve received a favorable response so far from the state and federal officials they’ve approached. Several states have expressed interest in their plan, but a proposal for a specialty fire department in the Philadelphia region is the furthest along. They envision for their proposal to be a mix of public and private funds.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to work something out in Pennsylvania,” Andrews said after a recent meeting with state officials.
Entire trains of tank cars loaded with crude oil snake through Pennsylvania’s capital city every day, bound for refineries and terminals along the East Coast. The trains carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and western Canadian tar sands oil to a cluster of refineries and barge terminals in the Philadelphia area.
Andrews and Goldwater say that airports and refineries have their own firefighting teams with special expertise and equipment. And, they say, that’s precisely what’s demanded by the rise in crude oil shipments by rail.
“You need the airport idea,” Goldwater said, “but you need it for the 1,400 miles between North Dakota and the Delaware River.”
In March testimony before a Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee, Andrews said that the nation’s 783,000 volunteer firefighters are dedicated to their work. But according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, their ranks have declined 13 percent since 1984.
“It is not fair for the community, at the local or state level, to create an environment where well-meaning volunteers will feel compelled to commit themselves to conducting highly-hazardous operations, that they are neither trained, nor equipped to perform,” Andrews testified.
One such incident took place in West, Texas, in April 2013. A massive explosion at a fertilizer storage facility killed 11 firefighters from five departments. In July last year, a 72-car train of Bakken crude oil rolled away and derailed at high speed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The inferno killed 47 people and leveled much of the business district.
“Volunteer fire fighters and emergency response personnel being thrust into catastrophic events without adequate training or resources is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed,” wrote the National Transportation Safety Board after a toxic chemical leak from a rail car in November 2012 in Paulsboro, N.J.
Tim Burn, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that a broad-based training program was still the best approach.
“It is the duty of government to provide the resources needed for hazmat response,” he said, “and this public safety discussion should not be driven by profit motive.”
Goldwater said he and Andrews expected a return on their investment. However, he added, if anyone wanted to make lots of money, “this is not the thing to do.”
So far, the impulse of government and industry has been to simply fund more training for emergency personnel. But Andrews said that might not be the most effective approach. The firefighting profession experiences an attrition rate of about 20 percent a year. Call volumes have increased, putting more pressure on volunteer and career firefighters alike. It’s difficult for volunteers with full-time jobs to take off time for training, and most departments can’t afford to pay for it.
The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy organization, has offered to train 1,500 emergency responders at its rail testing facility in Pueblo, Colo. But with the random and rare nature of train derailments, the odds aren’t good that a limited number of trained personnel scattered across the country will be where they’re needed when something happens.
Andrews and Goldwater say their plans would be geographically tailored. Philadelphia is a major destination for crude oil, so its response needs may be different from places such as Albany, N.Y., or Sacramento, Calif., where oil trains pass through.