Public safety officials from around the Pittsburgh region joined U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) at the Allegheny County Courthouse today as he announced his support for a bill that would form a national train derailment task force.
The Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs and Safety Evaluation, or RESPONSE ACT, would create a new set of training and resource recommendations for derailment first responders. It would be a subcommittee under the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“You can’t just insist that people respond appropriately and then not give them the resources, the training and the help that they need,” Casey said. “So, we have to be prepared to do that with policy and with dollars.”
The RESPONSE subcommittee of FEMA would be required to consult emergency responders, technical experts and the private sectors for “a review of training, resources, best practices and unmet needs related to emergency responders to railroad hazmat incidents,” according to Casey. The bill would also create a train incident database.
If the bill passes, the team would have one year to provide Congress with recommendations on responder training and resource allocation.
Alvin Henderson, chief of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services, said all first responders in a municipality, not just the hazardous materials teams, should receive the proper train derailment training.
“We’re hopeful that through this process that there will be funding put in place to bring that training closer to us here in southwestern Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth so we can actually get more hands-on training,” Henderson said.
As many as 70 rail lines travel through southwestern Pennsylvania carrying crude oil from the Bakken Shale formation to refineries on the East Coast, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said best practices for area first responders need to be put in place to protect the Pittsburgh region.
“We have a great tradition of rail and energy and chemicals and industrial production, but we want to make sure that it’s done and done safely,” he said.
There have been at least three train derailments on southwestern Pennsylvania tracks in the last 13 months, and Casey’s call for improved first responder training comes less than one month after a CSX train carrying 100 tankers filled with crude oil jumped the tracks in West Virginia, spilling chemicals into the Kanawha River.
In February, the federal Department of Transportation and the freight rail industry agreed to update safety standards for transporting crude oil. The reforms include slower speed limits for trains in urban areas and increased emergency responder training and track inspections.
Last year, the federal government allocated funds to hire 15 new rail and hazardous materials inspectors and to retain 45 other rail safety positions. About $3 million will also go to expand track inspections on crude oil routes.
The RESPONSE Act, written by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), is currently in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Casey hopes the bill will pass without objection.
“If we got it done, it would help enormously to provide the focus we need to help our first responders and especially in very small communities,” he said.