This week Rep. Herrera (R,WA) introduced HR 4765, the Fire Department Proper Response and Equipment Prioritization Act. The bill would require FEMA to give high priority to grants for incident response training for crude oil and ethanol train accidents.
Assistance to Fire Fighters Grants
The bill would amend 15 USC 2229(c), Assistance to firefighters grants, by adding a new paragraph (4) that would require FEMA to “give high priority consideration to grants providing for planning, training, and equipment to firefighters for crude oil-by-rail and ethanol-by-rail derailment and incident response”.
No additional funding is provided.
Herrera is not a member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee to which this bill has been assigned. Thus it is unlikely that he would be able to influence the Committee to take up this bill. The alternative would be to use this language as a floor amendment to either a FEMA authorization bill or the DHS spending bill. In either case it would be unlikely that there would be any substantial opposition to the amendment.
I can sympathize with any congressman that has oil or ethanol trains transiting communities within their district. While there have been a number of high-profile crude oil train accidents in the last couple of years, the actual threat to any given community is quite remote. But if an accident did occur the community would rely on their emergency response personnel to be trained and equipped to handle such a situation.
Many (if not most) communities do not have the spare training and equipment funds to finance operations of such low potential occurrence. This is where local communities tend to turn to the deep (relatively) pockets of the federal government for assistance. Those pockets are not deep enough, however, to fund every community for every year for such training and equipment. And training, if not repeated or practiced frequently, becomes stale and ineffective.
For low frequency, high-impact events like these rail catastrophes would probably be more effectively served by training and equipping a fast acting state or regional response team. The equipment costs for each team would be higher due to having to be able to respond quickly over longer distances (probably require air transport), but it would be lower than training and equipping each fire department along the train routes.
The other problem with this bill and others like it that expand grant uses or influence the grant funding process without providing additional funds it that they really only serve to dilute the limited money available for these grants. Particularly for low frequency events like this, grants to one community will mean that another community with a more likely occurrence that needs grant money will not get it.