Amid new attention on train derailments, firefighters keep training for 'high-hazard' events
PUEBLO, Colorado — A series of high-profile derailments around the country is giving new urgency at a special facility where firefighters from around the world learn to respond to hazmat train crashes and leaks.
The "Security and Emergency Response Training Center" gives responders hands-on experience with train derailments and the dangers associated with them, from leaking chemical barrels to pressurized and potentially explosive tankers. While 99.9% of hazmat shipments arrive safely, railroads say, the training firefighters get at SERTC helps them prepare for worst-case scenarios.
LOOKUP: Hundreds of trains derail every year. Search our database to see how much damage they do.
"I'm joyful for this knowledge but hope I never have to use it," said trainee David Doeger, 52, a firefighter/paramedic with West Chester Township in Ohio, outside Cincinnati. "This is definitely a low-frequency, high-hazard kind of event."
CONTEXT: Trains keep derailing all over the country, including Thursday in Washington. What's going on?
Train safety gets national attention after Ohio derailment
President Joe Biden has endorsed a pending bipartisan proposal in Congress to significantly increase the training firefighters get to respond to hazmat derailments. The bill's sponsors filed the legislation shortly after the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
In that crash, first responders set fire to some of the leaking tanker cars containing pressurized, flammable gas, calculating the fire posed less danger to the community than a possible explosion. Trains routinely carry dangerous chemicals like chlorine, vinyl chloride, molten sulfur and crude oil.
Training in Colorado
On a recent snowy day in Pueblo, firefighters from departments around the country and Canada clambered over a crumpled gas tanker at the SERTC facility, learning how to safely offload or flare gas to prevent an explosion.
They also practiced sealing up leaking barrels and pumping fuel from a crashed locomotive, learned how to open and close different kinds of valves, and how to read placards showing what tanker cars are carrying.
"We try to give them the most realistic training we can so that when they walk up to an incident they can respond in a safe and efficient manner," said Kari Gonzales, the president and CEO of MxV Rail, which operates the facility on behalf of railroads and FEMA.
MxV's name is a nod to the equation for calculating momentum — mass times velocity — and reflects the challenge in dealing with heavy, moving trains.
About 2,000 firefighters per year trained
Federal grants pay for the training, and about 2,000 firefighters go through the program annually, Gonzales said. Freight railroads also send their own employees through the program, she said, and departments can also access virtual training. The training is targeted to departments in communities with railroad tracks.
As firefighters warmed back up after practicing offloading a tanker, trainee Tony Garza, 38, said he was reassured to learn that firefighters from around the country are using similar language and approaches to managing disaster responses. A lieutenant in his small department in Amory, Mississippi, Garza said any significant spill response would require calling in help from other departments.
"We're all using the same playbook now," he said. "We're taking things I've always read about and actually doing it, actually practicing those skills."
VIDEO: Norfolk Southern CEO apologizes, vows to clean up after Ohio train derailment
NEWS: Ohio attorney general sues Norfolk Southern over East Palestine train derailment
SAFETY: 675 rail cars pulled off tracks, Norfolk Southern faces grilling
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Firefighters train for 'high-hazard' train derailment events