First Responders and Train Cargo

July 26, 2023


The United States Transportation Department has unveiled a new proposal that will require railroads to notify first responders of the cargo a train is carrying if the train derails. An article sent out by the Daily Dispatch discusses the idea behind this proposed law and how to prepare first responders before they arrive at the incident. Chiefs Bob Horton and Jeff Buchanan speak with Fire Headlines host Inanna Hencke about the most effective ways for hazardous cargo information to reach first responders in a timely manner. They also discuss a podcast listener question on firework safety.

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Hear the panel’s thoughts on whether railroads should inform first responders of hazardous train cargo in the latest episode of Fire Headlines by the WFCA.

Notifications and First Response

When a train incident releases hazardous material, under the new law proposed by the U.S. Transportation Department, the railroad operating that train would need to immediately forward cargo details to first responders within a 10-mile radius of the area. These high-consequence, low-frequency events need emergency plans to protect local communities, and the new law would apply to nearly 600 railroads across the country. Large railroad companies have an app, AskRail, that allows firefighters to look up what each train is carrying, but smaller railroads do not have this app. Bob is curious about what is to be done if communities outside the 10-mile radius are impacted as well. It is discussed if there is a need to notify emergency personnel when any train carrying hazardous material is passing through a community. Bob says, “On behalf of the community, we would rather have people over-notified than under-notified. It seems simple and there is some complexity.”

Bob raises the question, “How will railroad companies work alongside 911 dispatch centers?” Depending on the location, emergency responders can be there in minutes, but if the information does not come in within the same timeframe, first responders will not have time to prepare. Jeff agrees that notifications are a step in the right direction but, realistically, making first responders aware of incidents in an appropriate and timely manner may need more discussion.

Resources to Effectively Mitigate Large Incidents

Jeff states the response to the incident should be distributed to the county and city municipalities that these railways are running through. This would ensure the right resources are being utilized to mitigate the risk of a huge incident that could come from a train derailment. For example, a February 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, OH, caused major environmental damage and disrupted thousands of community members when toxic chemicals spilled and burned in the area.1 Jeff believes funding for fire departments plays a role in train derailment response. This proposed law could be an opportunity to allocate more federal resources toward emergency response.

Listener Question – Illegal Fireworks

Fire Headlines received a viewer question that asks, “Why do fire departments make such a big deal about ‘illegal fireworks’? They aren’t that dangerous, right?” Jeff tackles the belief that sparklers are not very dangerous by stating that kids and adults are burned by sparklers each year due to how hot these fireworks can burn. The biggest danger of unsafe firework practices is that they divert emergency response resources in the community. Around the Fourth of July, Jeff states any firework-related incident “takes resources that would be otherwise available for a cardiac respiratory arrest, an asthma attack, or a true working fire in a house or somewhere else, and it takes those limited, precious resources and puts them onto a tree fire or to a dumpster fire,” which could have been avoided. In areas with a high risk of fire, Bob notes the growing popularity of drone light shows, which have been used to replace fireworks and eliminate the risk of firework-related wildfires.

Fire Headlines welcomes reader questions about any topics related to emergency services or the articles that the Daily Dispatch sends out each day. You can email your questions to [email protected]. Jeff, Bob, or one of our guest experts may answer on a future episode

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  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment.” Accessed July 13, 2023.


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