I read some interesting testimony this weekend from Tod Perlin, Fire Chief from the Town of Rangely, ME. He was one of the US first responders that aided the local Canadian fire department during the immediate aftermath of the Lac-Megantic crude-train derailment last year. His description of what happened is very moving and well worth reading.
There is one very important point that he made in his testimony at the THUD Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on rail safety. He mentioned that, in addition to pumping water out of a local lake (the ‘lac’ of Lac-Megantic) because the local fire hydrant system was compromised in the explosions following the derailment, fire fighters used ”8000 gallons of foam [that]was trucked in from the refinery in Toronto to help extinguish the burning rail cars”.
This is one of the major emergency response problems for crude oil and ethanol transportation emergencies; special fire-fighting foam is needed to put out these fires; water just spreads the flames. Fire-fighting agencies that have fuel terminals or refineries in their response areas will typically have access to these specialized foams (and the associated equipment to apply the foam), but most fire-fighters will not have access to this important tool. It is just too expensive and hard to justify on short budgets.
One way to ensure that first responders to rail accidents involving unit trains of crude oil or ethanol have immediate access to the essential (and correct type of) fire-fighting foam would be to require railroads to haul a specialized car at the rear-end of such unit trains that carries the appropriate foam and the necessary application equipment. This way fire departments along rail rights-of-way would not need to stock the required equipment; they would only have to pay for the training in its use.
If the equipment was properly designed and the operation clearly documented, the training costs could probably be almost eliminated. If a crew of fire-fighters had to read a 5 minute tutorial on the use of the equipment, it would still be much more readily available than a foam unit being trucked in from the nearest refinery or fuel depot.
To the best of my knowledge, these cars do not yet exist. But this is clearly a need that calls out for fulfillment. And if the railroads and shippers cannot figure that out, maybe they need some encouragement from the FRA and PHMSA.