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Chico fire hazardous materials 'training' & response

Responding to hazardous materials emergencies takes on unique qualities when the incident involves rail cars.

Posted: Feb 19, 2020 8:48 AM
Updated: Feb 19, 2020 3:37 PM

CHICO, Calif. – There is a federal proposal currently in the works that would remove restrictions that are in place on the transport of liquefied natural gas, (LNG) by rail car. The compound is highly flammable and combustible.

Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough talked to first responders with the Chico Fire Department, to ask, ‘what other chemicals are currently moved by rail and what happens if there is an emergency in a populated area?’

When one is near railroad tracks the sound of an approaching train is unmistakable. Most people simply see a train. For firefighters trained in dealing with hazardous materials, they often see a ‘what if’ scenario.

Division Chief Wes Metroka with the Chico Fire Department spent 15 years as part of the Butte County Interagency HazMat Team. He knows chemicals and what they do. He says when it comes to rail cars, Haz-Mat situations are unique.

“All you may have is the shape of the car to let you know what you’re dealing with,” explained Metroka. “Then you are looking at the hazard placards to determine, is it flammable, toxic or corrosive.”

Yarbough asked Metroka about the specific dangers posed by liquid natural gas. He said the biggest hazard with that gas is fire and its ability to burn. He says it is flammable and explains that gas escaped from a possible rail breach must go somewhere. He says if such gas gets trapped in a building, then you have a risk of explosion or burning.

Metroka says he worries about a long list of emergencies; not just with LNG, but with all kinds of dangerous and potentially deadly compounds currently transported by rail.

He says hazardous materials training means learning to read the unknowns of a situation. He says first responders must be able to understand how different chemicals react and how harmful they may be to humans and the environment.

Technology is also helping first responders move into action in case of an emergency. Mobile Apps allow teams on the ground to look up a chemical. They have the ability to type in the location of the incident and include factors such as wind speeds and temperatures. The app then calculates a course of action, including a response radius and how much time first responders have to keep people safe.

“In any hazardous materials call, we have to figure out what the critical factors are. If we’re dealing with something toxic or corrosive that will harm or kill you, then our best plan of action may be to shelter in place,” said Metroka.

First responders also have access to specialized, protective gear. There are several different levels of Haz-Mat suits teams utilize, depending upon the types of chemical agents encountered. Some protect against gases, while others provide protection from flash burns as well.

However, Metroka says gear alone will not save first responders moving into emergency situations. He says keeping a cool head is what protects team members.

“Haz-mat is not one-size-fits-all,” explains Metroka. With fires, we know what we’re dealing with. With Haz-Mat calls, like a train, you have multiple possibilities. For instance, if you had a derailment with 100 cars, you would have a mile-long scene. There are many situations we need to be prepared for.”

To learn more about the federal proposal involving LNG, click here.

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