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Being prepared for a hazardous train derailment

By Eugenia Jones

Last week’s Norfolk Southern train derailment in Whitley City brought to the forefront the importance of emergency preparedness in a county that is geographically divided by an active railway.  Last week’s derailment fortunately did not involve the release of chemicals or hazardous waste; however, with the large number of trains passing on a daily basis through McCreary County, the increased odds of a derailment involving hazardous waste is a scenario the county’s first responders must be prepared to encounter.

According to McCreary County’s Emergency Management Director, Stephen McKinney, McCreary County is prepared in the event of a potentially hazardous train derailment.  

“Each responding department has a book detailing their responsibilities during a railroad emergency,” McKinney said.  “We also have an app to help guide us.  Law enforcement, with assistance from local fire departments, is responsible for containing the scene.  Firefighters are responsible for obtaining information from the numbered placards placed on train cars, identifying the type of materials or substances being hauled in each car.  Once we know what is inside the rail cars, we know the types of actions we need to take.”

According to McKinney, McCreary County contracts with outside agencies, including Hazmat 12 Special Response Team.  These agencies have specialized equipment to help deal with hazardous waste.  Their technicians also have special training in plugging leaks and turning off valves associated with hazardous materials.

“Our firefighters must identify how to control different types of fires that can potentially occur during a train derailment,” McKinney noted.  “Depending on the substance involved, firefighters may be need to use dry foam.  It just depends.”

In the event of a serious train derailment, a command center with representatives from all emergency response teams including law, EMS, fire, and Haz-Mat is established. 

“We have table top drills where we all get together and go over different scenarios,” McKinney explained.  “We figure out what doesn’t work and make corrections in our response plan.  We keep tweaking and refining our response plan to make it better.”

In the event of a hazardous waste derailment requiring an evacuation, McKinney said the public will be notified to leave.  Local government agencies or the American Red Cross will establish temporary shelters for individuals with no place to go.

McKinney explained evacuations may sometimes cover a wide area.

“When there is a health or safety concern, you have to consider weather and wind,” McKinney noted.  “It’s important to get people who are downwind of the derailment to a safe area.”

McKinney noted McCreary County’s emergency responders have received railroad emergency training through the Kentucky Fire Commission, Norfolk Southern, and other webinars.   

“I’m looking at doing another training for railroad safety in the near future,” McKinney concluded.

Photo by Derek Dobbs
Fortunately, a recent train derailment in Whitley City did not threaten the health or safety of residents.  However, there is an emergency response plan in place if a train derailment involving hazardous waste ever occurs in McCreary County.

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