Whether you credit — or blame — President Obama’s development of alternative energy options, the instability of foreign oil-producing countries or domestic dissatisfaction with dependence on foreign oil, it’s evident that the U.S. has lessened that dependence in recent years. As a country we’re using less oil than we used to and we’re finding more of that oil at home — most recently in the Bakken Shale. In fact, the number of barrels of crude oil produced in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 2009. Just as interesting is the fact that we’re transporting a great deal of it by rail.
According to the Association of American Railroads, about 16 times the number of rail car loads of crude oil are transported on U.S. rail lines today than just five years ago. As we’ve seen already this year, in New York and West Virginia, that’s an alarming increase in the chance for rail-related emergency incidents.
There’s no point in staying up nights worrying about when a shipment of crude oil that’s passing through will encounter an obstacle or a condition that causes it to derail. It stands to reason, though, that every fire department — local, rural and metro — should adopt a “when,” not an “if,” attitude toward such a disaster happening in its jurisdiction.
Although the AAR has required new tankers to be built to stricter standards, including tougher shell materials and larger crumple zones, older tankers are not required to be retrofitted. Even scarier is a statement made Feb. 17 by reporters Dan Heyman and Richard Pérez-Peña, of the New York Times, regarding the West Virginia derailment. The duo reported that the tankers involved in that crash and subsequent fire had all been built to the new specs. They still erupted in deadly explosions and fireballs that sent residents fleeing for their lives and crude spilling into the James River.
Communication is supposed to take place with first responders about large crude shipments moving through their area, and the freight rail industry is training thousands of local public safety officials at the Industry’s Transportation Technology Center’s Security and Emergency Response Training Center — in addition to basic hazmat firefighter training. But we all know that the communication isn’t what it should be, so my hope is that tanker derailment has become a priority local departments are preparing for on their own.
Battalion Chief Robert Lipscomb of the Lynchburg, Va., Fire Department, is one of the experienced responders in this kind of situation. At FDIC this month he’ll talk about the challenges his department faced while responding to a Bakken crude oil derailment in 2014 and the lessons they learned from that incident. It sounds like a timely and relevant topic that I hope you’ll make room for in your schedule: He’ll present from 10:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Thursday, April 23, in room 234-235.
In other special coverage of fire service-related topics this month, we have reminders about how to address hydrant testing and inspection and anecdotal evidence that participating in National Fire Prevention Week does save lives. I’m also honored to share a story about a firefighter whose hobby honors his fallen brothers in a meaningful way. We hope you enjoy this issue.