Emergency response when a train goes off the rails

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Sibley’s volunteer firefighters knew what to do when a train carrying potentially hazardous material went off the rails on Sunday, May 16, Osceola Emergency Management director Dan Bechler said.

Sibley is in Osceola County in northwest Iowa.

“I am confident in the response in the county. We train for this constantly,” Bechler said.

Bechler said the Sibley firefighters train as a group and with other fire departments, some of whom responded to the train derailment. About 60 firefighters from about eight northwest Iowa departments have been at the scene, Bechler said.

The local emergency responders work in coordination with Union Pacific and a hazardous material (HAZMAT) team from the Sioux City (Iowa) Fire Department.

Iowa had fewer than 100 train accidents a year from 2005 to 2020 with the most (76) in 2005, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The majority of all accidents were derailments, according to the Iowa DOT and FRA.

The priority role of the local responders and the HAZMAT team is not to put out the fire burning with the derailed train, officials said.

The priority is to evaluate the incident in terms of public safety, Bechler said.

The first action is to obtain a list of the “everything on the train from the conductor,” Bechler said. “The conductor knows the cars involved, what chemicals are on the train, what’s leaking.”

UP said on Monday some of the derailed cars were carrying hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide, and asphalt.

Officials say some material did spill, but it’s unknown how much.

Local officials requested the HAZMAT team from Sioux City.

“We got the call at about 2:45 p.m. Sunday. We were on the scene until about midnight,” said Mark Aesoph, the fire marshal from Sioux City.

Together, local officials and the HAZMAT team evaluate the scene and other factors used to determine voluntary evacuations and other actions.

“…based on information we give incident command guidance,” Aesoph said.

The train derailed on a section of the track south of town. The track is on the western side of town near what is called Old Highway 60. The highway was replaced several years ago with a new four-lane roadway about a mile east of the city.

Bechler said the fire did not threaten any structures as it was far enough from a Ford dealership and two houses.

But, “a decision was made to evacuate. Our HAZMAT training is about keeping people safe,” Bechler said.

The HAZMAT team monitors measure air quality, wind and other factors.

The voluntary evacuation covered a western part of the city called Broadmoor, Bechler said. That area was downwind of the derailment. Some of the city remained evacuated on Monday.

Firefighters wore self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA), Bechler said, as they alerted impacted residents about voluntary evacuation.

The evacuation call was also sent through Iowa’s Alert system.

Along with evacuations, emergency personnel also needed to block streets and roads around the derailment site, Bechler said.

Both Aesoph and Bechler said the UP brings a crew to address the fire and other issues.

“Our firefighters stay out of the bad stuff,” Bechler said.

Aesoph said there were at least two drones at the site which the HAZMAT team used to monitor the derailment site.

Aesoph said the train derailment was a stable situation in terms of a spreading fire and more of a clean-up incident.

While the HAZMAT team carries PPE such as full HAZMAT suits and SCBAs, the team was outside of any potential hazard and did not need that equipment, Aesoph said.

Once evacuation zones were established and a couple hours after a UP crew arrived, the incident commander or Sibley Fire Chief Keith Huls, said the HAZMAT crew could leave, Aesoph said.

Iowa divided into HAZMAT districts. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources map.

If any structures had been threatened, Bechler said firefighters would set up automatic water systems to prevent fires. Firefighters can operate those systems remotely to reduce exposure, Bechler said.

KELOLAND News contacted a UP spokesperson about the structure of responding to derailments but received an email response that was sent earlier Tuesday. The email was an update on the situation and did not address questions about working with local emergency personnel or priorities for handling derailment fires and situations.

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