Railroad Incident Response:

An All Hazards Approach

CarolinaFireJournal - By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt
By Capt. Mark J. Schmitt EFO
10/26/2015 -

Response to a hazardous materials response is covered only briefly in Hazardous Materials Operations classes. Unless the instructor chooses to add some additional material, the discussion usually focuses on identifying rail cars, emphasizing tank cars, and little else. An actual incident involving a train encompasses much, much more. This article discusses the other things involved in railroad response such as safety, bridges, tunnels and etc.


Why the Emphasis on Rail Response?

Since 2013, there have been over a dozen serious incidents that involved 260 derailed cars carrying crude oil and ethanol. There were 48 deaths and at least seven injuries in addition to 30 destroyed buildings. Damage estimates are in the millions of dollars. The problems lie with older DOT111 rail cars that do not meet current safety standards, although they did meet the latest standards when they were built.

Ethanol production has increased by over 10 million gallons since 1990 resulting in increased shipments in DOT111 rail cars. Only six percent of the DOT111 fleet meets the latest industry safety standards. Suggested upgrades to the older cars include a protective housing on top of the car to protect exposed fittings, head shields on the ends of the car to protect against coupler impacts and breakaway handles on the bottom outlet valves to prevent them from opening during a derailment. Sometimes these cars are referred to as “Super 111 cars.” The head shields and protective housing could make the DOT111 look like a pressurized rail car at first glance, possibly resulting in a misidentification of the car or contents early in the incident. This is not a major concern as this initial misidentification will lead to a safer approach earlier in the incident that can easily be fine tuned once a positive identification of the car and its contents is made.

Basic Safety Rules

Walking on rails is a slip, trip and fall hazard. DON’T DO IT! A hard hat or helmet, safety glasses, gloves and steel-toed boots are the minimum required equipment for personnel operating at the site of a derailment. Items such as respirators or SCBA and chemical protective clothing may be required depending on the types of hazards or chemicals present at the site. Only those persons having previous training in the use of specialized chemical protective clothing will be allowed into the site if a chemical hazard exists.  Electrical potential on locomotives can range from 600-23000 volts at 800 amps. This is extremely hazardous!

When working on a rail car, set the hand brake and chock the wheel to stabilize the car and keep it from moving. This is similar to chocking and stabilizing a damaged vehicle prior to beginning extrication operations

Always know which way the door opens on a rail car before attempting to gain access to it. Loads will shift in rail cars during a derailment and could even shift during normal transport if not secured properly. Always look in both directions when operating near railroad tracks. Unlike a road way, rail traffic could approach from both directions. Always keep a distance between you and a passing train. This will prevent you from being struck from something hanging loose from a rail car.  Facing the train that is coming at you is a safety measure. This lets you know what is coming at you, much the same as facing traffic when operating on an Interstate. Leave a distance between you and a stopped train when crossing the tracks. A train could start unexpectedly and move in your direction.

Identify the contents of each car through the use of the shipping papers (consist) or placards. Always maintain three points of contact when climbing on any rail car. Keep away from the couplers as much as possible as they could be a pinch point should the train move suddenly. Rail cars are higher than they look due to the ballast raising the truck above the normal ground level. Always use the rail car’s ladder or your own. Even better, always use your own ladder as it is wider, tested on an annual basis and better constructed than the ladders on rail cars. Never place your body in front of any valve or any other opening. A sudden release of product or failure could result in serious injury.

Proper Line Placement

Running a hose line above the rails is an invitation to disaster. Should a train come through, it will cut your hose and sever your water supply. This will have a negative impact on your operation and could lead to injury or death among emergency responders. Do the right thing, take the extra time and run your hoses between the railroad ties and under the rails.

Product Identification

There are several ways to find out what materials the train is carrying. Placards and dedicated rail cars will only tell you what hazardous materials are being carried. The best tactic is to get the consist from the conductor. The consist will tell you the contents of every car, whether they are hazardous or not. The consist will also tell you which cars are loaded and which cars are empty. This can be extremely important when putting together your Incident Action Plan. You might only have one car that is burning, but what is in the cars that are next to it? Cars loaded with paper products or cotton waste that catch on fire will significantly add to your fire problem.

Initial Incident Response

Is the incident along a mainline — the track that runs through your district — or is it in a terminal, yard or industrial siding? Yards and terminals will usually have a higher concentration of hazmat cars at any given time. Access will almost certainly be a problem. Many yards have limited road access. You need to know where the key entrances are in advance. While you may be able to identify sections of your response district where the mainline runs along the roadway — making access much easier — do not count on this. As always, plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Bridges, trestles and tunnels can pose difficulty in gaining access to tracks. Bridges and trestles are usually located near water, which must be protected from contaminants. Waterways or wetlands close to the railroad will need to be protected in the event of a spill. In many locations there are one or more pipelines or communications conduits buried in close proximity to the tracks. Prior to initiating any excavation, the area must be surveyed to ensure that no lines are encountered. In many parts of the country, a jurisdiction may have more than one railroad operating within its borders. There may be little indication as to ownership of the tracks. You need to know beforehand who owns and operates the track.

Initial Tactics

Your best tool for success in setting up incident response is the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) found in every apparatus on your department. (See the article in the summer 2014 issue on maintaining proficiency with the ERG through continuing education.). The product can be identified by using the four-digit UN ID number found on all four sides of the car and in some cases, the top as well. The product name may also be found on the car if it is a dedicated container. You may also find the name of the product if you have access to the shipping papers found in the locomotive. As a last resort, if no product name or UN ID number is available, you can use the car’s silhouette to begin developing your plan of attack. The ERG will give you enough information to start implementing a plan:

  • Potential Hazards — including fire or explosion and health
  • Public Safety — including protective clothing and Evacuation
  • Emergency Response — including fire, spill or leak and first aid

CHEMTREC can also expand on the information provided by the Emergency Response Guidebook.

Tunnels and Bridges

Fires and emergency situations in tunnels are among the most difficult to cope with due to the limited space available for emergency services personnel to operate. Direct liaison between railroad authorities and emergency personnel is essential to keep all personnel informed of current conditions within underground installations. Prior to entry into a railroad tunnel, emergency personnel must contact the railroad to ensure that all rail traffic has been stopped in the tunnel and on rail lines leading to the tunnel.

In most cases, there is very little side clearance between the rails and walls of the tunnel. Emergency personnel should confirm that all rail equipment is secured prior to entering the tunnel. Special consideration needs to be given to the amount of time available when using SCBA, i.e., tunnel length as well as means of ingress and egress. Manholes, access ports or other mid-length entry points are not normally available. In the event of fire, responders may be required to deploy water supply lines a considerable distance inside of the tunnel structure.

The removal of derailed rail equipment can be a complicated and time consuming procedure due to close clearances within the tunnel. Vehicle access to tunnels may be accomplished through the use of railroad “hi-rail” equipment that is specially designed and equipped with wheels that allow them to traverse rail lines. This equipment can be made available to emergency personnel for the transportation of personnel and equipment into a tunnel.

Railroad bridges are custom built structures designed specifically to handle train traffic. They are generally narrow and do not provide for the use of motor vehicles. Railroad bridges can be classified based on the type of deck construction; open deck or ballast deck. Open deck structures utilize timber bridge ties spaced 12 to 15 inches on center. Ballast deck structures have solid decks that contain the normal track structure — ballast, track ties and rail. Most railroad bridges do not have walkways. Clearances do not allow for persons to be on the bridge during train operations.

In some cases, water supply lines may have to be stretched onto and across the span of a bridge in the event of a fire on or in the bridge structure. In other cases, pumping from watercourses or the use of fireboats could be necessary. In most cases, every effort will be made to pull the cars of a train across a bridge to solid ground. Railroad “hi-rail” equipment can be made available to transport personnel and equipment onto and across bridge structures. Close coordination with railroad officials is essential in the event of a train emergency on a bridge. Emergency responders should limit their movements onto the bridge structure until it is deemed safe.

Fires in tunnels can result in high heat and smoke conditions. Incidents on bridges create a severe fall hazard. Both areas of operation can be extremely dangerous. Act accordingly!

Hi-Rail Equipment

A hi-rail vehicle — from highway and rail — is a vehicle that can operate both on rail tracks and a conventional road. They are often converted road vehicles, keeping their normal wheels with rubber tires, but fitted with additional flanged steel wheels for running on rails. The rail wheels are raised and lowered as needed. Purpose-built road-rail vehicles also exist. Such vehicles are normally used for railroad right-of-way maintenance during engineering possessions of the line. They can be driven on roads to near the site and then convert to rail vehicle for the final journey to the worksite. This avoids the complex maneuvers that would be associated with a road vehicle accessing the worksite if the worksite is not near a road. Since they are normally converted road vehicles, they would not fare well in a collision with a heavy rolling stock and therefore can only drive on tracks under an engineering possession. They are generally designed to be insulated, thus they do not activate track (signaling) circuits.

Grade Crossings

At each mainline road crossing there is a post mounted sign identifying the railroad name, the DOT crossing number, railroad milepost and an emergency telephone number. The sign is approximately the size of a car license plate. All railroad emergencies, including situations that could affect public safety or the safe movement of trains should be reported to the number located on the sign. This could include a stuck or stalled vehicle on a crossing, accidents at or near the crossing or any event or situation taking place in which close clearance of train traffic may be a safety factor. Also include the city, state and location of the incident.

Car Markings and Stenciling

Reporting marks are unique to each car. Use them when identifying cars in a derailment as opposed to saying “first car,” “second car,” etc. The car specification will identify which type of car you are dealing with — DOT105, DOT111, etc. The capacity will indicate the total capacity of the car. This is important when determining how much product needs to be offloaded or how much product was lost due to the derailment. The weight will tell you how much the car weighs empty and full. You will need this information when calling for wreckers or cranes to assist in the recovery effort. Placards will identify the presence of hazardous materials within the car. Test dates will indicate when the tank and other important fittings were tested. A dedicated rail car will only carry one product and one product only. Many tanks will also carry a CHEMTREC sticker with CHEMTREC’s phone number on it. The number is also located in the ERG and may also be found on the consist in some cases. This negates the need for you having to memorize the number.

Reporting marks allow you to properly identify the rail car and compare it to the consist to ensure that all cars are accounted for in a derailment situation. The marking also tells you who owns or who built the car in question. Other stenciling will indicate who leases the car and may indicate the contents, even if the car is not a “dedicated” car. A dedicated rail car is one that carries one product and one product only. This allows the car to stay in service longer by not having to be cleaned and purged between loads when different loads are carried. In addition to a placard, the product name will be stenciled on the side of the car.  Information on the lining will also be present if the car is carrying corrosive liquids.

Special Considerations
in Railroad Response

We have talked about general safety issues, initial response actions and access issues. Now let’s take a look at some special response considerations that you may be faced with when dealing with a railroad incident.

Brush Fires

Derailments may present additional problems to the hazards of the train and its contents. A fire caused by a derailment can easily cause a brush fire along the tracks.

Access Difficulties

Accessing the car, either the top of a hopper or tank car or the interior of a boxcar, must be accomplished by using a ladder. The floor of a box car is several feet above the track, which may be several feel above grade level due to the ballast under the rails. When accessing the top of a car you can easily be 20 feet or more above ground, the equivalent of falling from a second story window or the roof of a single story home. When operating a hose line from the top of the ladder, use extreme caution as the back pressure could easily knock you from the ladder. Don’t forget to lock in!

Fire Attack

Use unmanned monitors as much as possible. There is no life safety issue here and no reason to risk the lives of firefighters unnecessarily. Should one of these tanks suffer a catastrophic failure, it will occur rapidly and possibly without warning, giving nearby firefighters little chance for escape. Use firefighters to place and set the monitors, then reassign to another job. There is no reason for them to spend any more time than necessary in close proximity to the cars on fire.

Water Supply

Water supply is one of the most important parts of the operation. If a positive water supply is not available, then a tanker shuttle will need to be established. If this is the case, a Water Supply Officer must be assigned to oversee the operation and ensure that enough tankers are assigned to the shuttle and that the needed fire flow can be maintained.

Environmental Concerns

Environmental concerns must be addressed at some point during the incident. The chemicals and the quantities involved, weather, geography and topography of the ground will all affect the environmental aspects of the incident. A number of companies may be assigned to environmental protection through diking, damming or other spill control activities while the Hazardous Materials Team is taking offensive actions to stop the active leaks. Don’t forget that the engine is a hazardous materials event in itself with 5600 gallons of fuel and 400 gallons of oil. Don’t get tunnel vision and focus on the tank cars while neglecting the motive power at the front of the train.

Internal Pressure

Any flame impingement on the rail car, either direct or radiant, will cause an increase in the internal pressure on the car. A pressure rail car will have a pressure relief valve that is spring operated. This valve will open and close automatically based on the pressure in the car as long as it has not been damaged or tampered with. A non-pressure car will have a pressure relief device such as a rupture disk as we see here. This disk is made of a heavy duty foil that bursts when excess pressure is applied. It is unable to reset itself like a pressure relief valve. In this case, liquid will continue to spew from the opening as long as there is product in the car and pressure on the car.

Grade Crossing and Rescue

Don’t get tunnel vision and focus on the flames and the big rail cars. In this example, the white minivan was occupied at the time of the derailment and was caught in the ensuing fireball. One person was killed and several occupants in the van were injured. Life safety must always be our top priority. Do not neglect injured civilians or those in need of rescue because you want to man a hose line.

Invisible Flames

Ethanol and other types of alcohol burn clean and clear. That is why ethanol is now being added to gasoline in order to reduce emissions. In this example, we do see typical orange flame. What is harder to see are the waves above the derailment. This is the ethanol burning. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security because you don’t see the typical orange flame and black smoke that you are used to seeing on most fires. Maintain situational awareness at all times, especially in incidents involving ethanol.

Worst Case Scenarios

A train derailment in the middle of a congested urban area can indeed be a worst-case scenario that will bring all of the elements of emergency response together. Fire attack will require an extensive water supply. The Hazmat Team may have to plug and patch leaking rail cars while other fire companies use defensive tactics to confine the spill and keep it from reaching storm drains and waterways. Emergency Management will need to coordinate evacuation routes and shelters. EMS may have to declare a mass casualty incident.

In addition to all of the points made for the previous incident, now we definitely have an environmental impact. Not only do we have cars in the river, but we have product in the river as well. How do we keep further product from leaking into the water? For the product that has already reached the water, how do we confine it? Have you thought about an incident like this in your jurisdiction? What’s your plan?

Expect the Unexpected

Almost anything can be shipped by rail. Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not out there. Even if it is a product that isn’t used in your jurisdiction, it may be passing through your district on the way to its final destination. When you are dispatched to a rail emergency, expect the unexpected, don’t make any assumptions and bring your A game with you.

Foam Resources

A flammable liquid spill or fire as a result of a train derailment will require a large amount of foam concentrate. Five gallon buckets on apparatus will not be enough. Does your jurisdiction have enough foam concentrate? If not, what’s your plan? Does your county have a foam cache? Is there a large industrial concern in your area that might be able to help? Do you have a mutual aid agreement that will get you the foam you need? These questions need to be answered beforehand and NOT when the cars are leaking.


You may get the impression that handling a train derailment is next to impossible due to the amount of territory that we have covered. It will certainly be difficult, but not impossible. There will be many people there to assist you including a Hazardous Materials Team, Emergency Management personnel, railroad and other industry representatives, etc. The key to handling any emergency involving a train is to keep your composure, ask for any resources you might need and listen to those that have more training and experience than you do.

In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at the rail cars and locomotives that travel through your district.

Mark Schmitt is Captain/Hazmat Specialist for the Greensboro Fire Department in Greensboro, N.C., and a veteran of over 20 years in the fire service. The majority of his career has been spent in special operations. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management. Schmitt has taught numerous hazardous materials courses for the Greensboro Fire Department, local community colleges and the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal in addition to serving on several hazardous materials related committees at the local and state level.
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