Real-time hazmat information for first responders at rail incidents: US DOT proposes new requirements

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In a move likely to bring about significant changes to safety procedures, the United States Department of Transportation (US DOT) is proposing new requirements for the sharing of real-time hazardous materials (hazmat) information with first responders at freight rail incidents.

East Palestine incident highlights need for real-time hazmat information

On the 3rd of February, 2023, a freight train operated by the Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to 38 railcars overturning.

The event received national media attention, mainly due to concerns about public health following the hazardous materials leak.

The incident underscored the necessity for first responders to have immediate access to information about on-scene hazards.

First responders require quick, coordinated, and specialized responses at hazardous materials incidents.

The right personal protective equipment (PPE) and knowledge of the chemicals involved are crucial for effective and safe response decisions.

Hazmat exposure risk for first responders

Approximately 300 firefighters from 50 departments were on the scene of the derailment in East Palestine on the night of February 3.

Many of these firefighters were volunteers, lacking both hazmat training and specialized equipment.

Their PPE may have provided inadequate protection from the hazardous materials exposures, which included vinyl chloride, a highly toxic, flammable, and known carcinogenic liquified compressed gas.

Communication issues during hazmat incidents

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently investigating the incident in East Palestine.

Last week, during a hearing, NTSB presented initial findings, including a video summary of the hazardous materials release and an investigation summary featuring incident footage.

The hearing discussed several issues related to the communication between first responders and the railroad.

There was a 45-minute delay before responders were given a list of the materials in each of the tank cars.

In addition, firefighters on the scene didn’t have access to critical information via the AskRail app.

Also, placards identifying the hazardous materials on the tank cars had been damaged by the fires.

Moreover, the hardcopy of the train’s content list was not immediately available since the conductor had disconnected the head-end locomotives and was moving them a mile away from the derailed railcars.

Proposed changes for quicker access to hazmat information

In response to these challenges, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is soliciting input on proposed reforms.

A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was posted in the Federal Register on June 27, and it is open for public comment until August 28, 2023.

PHMSA is suggesting changes to its Hazardous Materials Regulations.

These amendments pertain to the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and are intended to bolster requirements for the provision of real-time train content information to first responders at hazardous materials rail incidents.

The proposed amendments would require railroads to maintain current train content lists in both hardcopy and electronic formats.

Moreover, the amendments suggest that as soon as a railroad is aware of an accident involving any hazardous materials, it should actively push train content information to authorized responders within a 10-mile radius.

The proposed amendment also includes a requirement for all carriers, regardless of their class, to share this information, as opposed to the current requirement which is only applicable to class 1 railroad carriers.

IFSJ Comment

If the proposed amendments are accepted, they would help ensure that first responders have timely access to critical information, ultimately leading to more effective and safer emergency responses.

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