First Responders Unprepared For Another Train Disaster

One year after an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, some firemen and first responders say they still don't have the training or manpower to handle a similar disaster.

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Ever since that Canadian train derailment, first responders all across North America wonder, what if it happens here? And as NPR's David Schaper reports from this side of the border, many say they don't have the training, the equipment or the manpower necessary to respond to an oil train disaster in their cities and towns.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The images of that fiery blast that incinerated much of Lac-Megantic's downtown last summer still haunt many first responders.

GREGG CLEVELAND: It's one of those things that certainly keeps me up at night.

SCHAPER: La Crosse, Wisconsin, fire chief Gregg Cleveland is watching one of the dozens of freight trains that rumble through the heart of the city of about 52,000 people every day. Many of the trains are hauling crude oil, some stretching more than a mile long, tank car after tank car full of volatile Bakken crude.

CLEVELAND: I think anytime that you have the railroad with the amount of hazardous materials in Bakken crude oil, the question is not if, but when.

SCHAPER: La Crosse is a long and narrow city nestled between the Mississippi River to the west and towering sandstone bluffs to the east, which presents unique challenges. An oil train could derail in the river or in a large environmentally sensitive marshland or in bluff-side neighborhoods that would be cut off from the only escape route over the tracks. Gregg Cleveland says, his professional firefighting force has a hazmat response team, but...

CLEVELAND: We really need more people trained in response to railroad incidents. We have virtually no foam, and the equipment that we have cannot apply the large volumes of foam that we would need in a railroad emergency.

SCHAPER: Furthermore, La Crosse has the only hazmat response team in west central Wisconsin. So along hundreds of miles of railroad track, the fire chief says, it could be up to small-town volunteer departments to initially try to contain an oil train spill and fire.

CLEVELAND: They're not going to have the resources to do that. I think that's a pretty safe assumption.

SENATOR HEIDI HEITKAMP: If we are going to do this right, we need to have a nationwide evaluation of the readiness.

SCHAPER: That's Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Her state is producing most of the oil that is shipped by rail, and the amount has increased more than 6,000 percent over the last five years. She's sponsoring a bill that would identify best practices for first responder training and equipment.

HEITKAMP: And then we need to figure out how do we get the resources to the local firefighters, how we get the training to the local firefighters and how do we institutionalize this because crude oil is not going to go off the trains anytime in the future.

SCHAPER: Heitkamp is also pushing for extra funding for first responder training, which the railroad industry is also stepping up to provide.

HEITKAMP: And it's our goal with the training that those first responders have as realistic an experience as possible.

SCHAPER: Lisa Stabler is president of the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado, which is part of the American Association of Railroads. Under an agreement with the federal Department of Transportation, the center is providing enhanced crude by rail disaster training for firefighters from around the country, free of charge. Stabler says the program will include hands-on training with real derailed tank cars going up in flames.

LISA STABLER: And that allows them to learn and, if necessary, to make mistakes in a very safe environment so that they don't mistake make mistakes when they're out trying to take care of an incident with the public.

SCHAPER: Back in La Crosse, Wisconsin, fire chief Greg Cleveland applauds the increased training efforts. But he wonders why this didn't happen sooner, given that dozens of trains carrying explosive crude already roll through his city every week.

CLEVELAND: Quite honestly, we're playing catch up very quickly here.

SCHAPER: And Cleveland notes that costly training and equipment needs will be with his community, just like the oil trains, for quite some time to come. David Schaper, NPR News.

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