From time to time we hear in the news of some local official that complains that no one tells them what hazardous materials are rolling through their jurisdiction. The latest, from last week, is the fire chief of Lafayette, LA. His department recently had to deal with a train derailment with a resulting hydrochloric acid leak.
The railroad have long responded that there is no practical method for providing realtime notifications of what hazardous materials are moving through any given jurisdiction. They have offered to provide, upon request, a list of the top 25 hazmat materials that have rolled across the tracks of any given area. Local officials have generally responded that such a list is of little use to first responders.
Hazmat Cargo Notification System
There is a relatively easy to develop system that could be employed to notify local officials when hazardous materials enter and leave their jurisdiction via rail. The system does not yet exist, but all of the components are currently commercially available, relatively inexpensive, and only require system integration and deployment to be available to any fire chief.
They system would rely on RFID technology. Every hazmat rail car would be equipped with an RFID device, broadcasting a unique ID number. Sensors placed along a rail track would record the time and ID of each passing device. That sensor would be report via phone, via cell phone or landline, to the local 911 facility the identification number of each hazmat car. A dedicated computer would use that id number to access a national data base for details about the cargo associated with that number.
Any jurisdiction that was interested in receiving hazmat notification could set up the system. Those locations wanting to keep closer track of hazmat railcar locations could place more sensors along tracks in their areas. A graphical user interface could display the section of track the railcar where the car is located.
Hazmat Leak Notification
Toxic by inhalation (TIH) cars could be equipped with leak sensors that could modify the ID signal transmitted by the RFID. This would allow jurisdictions to know when leaking rail cars were moving through their area, allowing for an early response. First responders to derailments and other train accidents would be able to get early warning of a leaking railcar if they carried an RFID sensor on their vehicle.
As I said earlier, such a system does not yet exist. It should be a relatively easy system to develop. There are any number of organizations concerned with railroad hazmat safety that could fund the development of such a system at just about any college or university with the appropriate computer systems program.