Many of the first responders who helped fight the fire that erupted after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month were ill-equipped and untrained to fight the massive chemical blaze that some now call “the hell fire.”
In testimony Wednesday before the US Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, lawmakers heard about myriad issues that snarled the response and that put firefighters who rushed to the scene at greater immediate risk – and may raise risks to their health throughout their lives.
About 300 firefighters from 50 departments dashed to the scene of the derailment in East Palestine on the night of February 3. Many of them were volunteers without hazmat training or specialized equipment.
Officials investigating the derailment testified that these first responders weren’t able to access information about the chemicals that were in 11 overturned cars carrying hazardous materials.
Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency investigating the crash, urged senators to consider meaningful changes to help inform exposed communities and first responders.
“People deserve to know what chemicals are moving through their communities and how to stay safe in an emergency, That includes responders who risk their lives for each of us every single day. They deserve to be prepared,” Homendy said.
Studies have shown that firefighters have a higher rates of cancer compared with members of the general population because of toxic chemicals they’re exposed to on the job. These cancers include digestive, oral, lung and bladder cancers. A rare type of cancer called malignant mesothelioma is about twice as common in firefighters than in the general population, probably due to exposure to asbestos in burning buildings, for example.
Cancer is now the leading cause of death for working firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday that he is very concerned about the long-term health of the firefighters who responded to the derailment.
“They all need to be assessed,” he said. “There needs to be established a baseline, and they need to be assured that in five years or 10 years, there’s still a place where they could go.”
“We look to the railroad to establish that fund,” DeWine said in testimony before the committee.
Chaos and chemicals
The derailment occurred about 9 p.m. February 3, and the night air quickly filled with smoke. Visibility was poor, and some of the placards on overturned railcars had burned away, leaving responders clueless about what chemicals were spilling and catching fire around them.
There’s an app, AskRail, meant to give users more information about the what’s on trains involved in accidents, but none of the first responders to the derailment in East Palestine had access to it, Homendy said.
Even if they had been able to use it, the app lists what is in cars by their order on the train, and its information may have been of limited help to firefighters on the scene who were looking at cars that were “bunched up” and not in their normal order, said David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Fire District.
There are better ways of getting urgent information to first responders, he told the senators.
After auto accidents, for example, some telematic systems in cars transmit information about the crash to emergency dispatchers who can then send it to crews responding to the scene.
“So en route to a motor vehicle accident, I know the car has flipped three times, airbags gone out, and it has information about that car – whether it’s an electric car, things I have to worry about,” Comstock said.
No information like that was available to crews responding to the derailed train.
“They didn’t have the information for quite a long time on what was on the train,” Homendy said.
Firefighters seek better training, gear
Facing criticism over its role in the response, the company that owns and operates the train, Norfolk Southern, has announced that it will create a new regional training center for first responders. CEO Alan Shaw repeated that pledge in his testimony Wednesday before the committee.
The company also intends to expand its Operation Awareness & Response program, which travels its 22-state network to teach first responders how to stay safe after train accidents.
Comstock testified that more training is important, but so is more gear. He said most fire stations in the area are lucky if they can supply each member of their crew with a single set of turnout gear: the protective coat, pants, boots, gloves and helmets firefighters wear.
“When I have to wash that, I’m out of service,” he said. “In response to the derailment, I had three firefighters who were exposed. Their gear is contaminated. I can’t use it.”
It takes six months to order replacement gear, he said.
“That means I have three firefighters who are out of service for six months who can’t respond to auto accidents or structure fires,” he said.
Even then, that basic gear isn’t designed to stand up to hazardous materials like the chemicals on the Norfolk Southern train.
For that kind of incident, firefighters need hazmat suits, which can cost $15,000 each, Comstock testified, along with specialized monitoring equipment.
“It’s unrealistic for the federal government to provide that to every department, but we do need to look at a regional approach so we can call in those teams that can supplement what we’re trying to do,” he said.
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Comstock said he hopes the committee will consider the needs of firefighters as it drafts legislation to right the wrongs of the East Palestine incident.
“This incident has emphasized the need to better train and equip firefighters to respond to hazardous material incidents, specifically to derailments in rural areas, which are mostly served by volunteer fire departments that often lack sufficient resources, tax base and manpower,” he said.