Inside the first responder hazmat training being embraced after East Palestine derailment

"You begin to understand that everybody has a stake," one firefighter said.

May 22, 2023, 5:48 PM

The derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train earlier this year in East Palestine, Ohio, sent toxic chemicals into the surrounding community and brought national attention to the potential risks of transporting hazardous materials.

Since then, legislators and industry leaders have emphasized the need for more hazmat training among local emergency responders -- the same kind of training that was on display earlier this month in New Jersey, where trains range from passenger rail to freight, carrying chemicals like chlorine and propane.

A captain at the Allendale Fire Department had requested a training session earlier this year on how emergency responders should react to a situation involving hazardous materials in transportation to ensure that the community's responders knew how to deal with an event involving hazmat.

And so, on a weekend in May, dozens of emergency responders, some traveling in from other states, gathered for a daylong training at the Bergen County Police and Fire Academy.

"If you plan for the when and if and you got all the right information to train on, those folks are better prepared to respond," said Mike Stephenson, the New Jersey state coordinator for TRANSCAER, the organization that hosted the session.

Emergency responders gather for hazmat training at the Bergen County Fire and Police Academy in New Jersey.

The training dealt with the practicality of learning about chemicals, the trains running through the communities and the types of train containers as well as the logistics, chains of command and points of contact.

TRANSCAER runs trainings across the country, showing communities and emergency responders how to prepare for hazmat transportation incidents.

For the event in Bergen County, they partnered with regional industries and transit systems.

"Protection of life is always the most critical element in making good and effective decisions," said Chris Wagner, the director of compliance and regulatory affairs at AmeriGas, who also taught a session on propane emergencies.

Emergency responders gather for hazmat training at the Bergen County Fire and Police Academy in New Jersey.

Participants were divided into small groups that went through a series of courses taught by industry experts -- from "Railcar Anatomy 101" to "Chlorine Emergencies."

"It's like looking at a cake," said Robert Policht, a firefighter in Passaic, New Jersey, who was a participant in the training. "As you start digging in, there's different layers. ... Through a course like this, you understand there's much more going on than just watching the transit train going by or how many 18-wheelers roll down your highway. You begin to understand that everybody has a stake in an incident."

After the derailment in East Palestine in February, industry and government voices urged additional resources for hazmat preparation.

Emergency responders gather for hazmat training at the Bergen County Fire and Police Academy in New Jersey.
Portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire, Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar/AP, FILE

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for increased funding for training and the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced after the East Palestine derailment, proposed a fee increase for railroads that would pay for grants to train local responders.

The Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, also announced that rail operators would train 20,000 first responders in local communities on accident mitigation and 2,000 additional first responders would go to an enhanced training at a center in Colorado.

Stephenson, from TRANSCAER, told ABC News that he'd seen a rise in requests for hazmat training after what happened in East Palestine.

"People tend to be reactive instead of proactive," he said. "So unfortunately, it takes an event like that to get people to wake up a little bit."

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