Many of those who responded to the emergency call in East Palestine, Ohio were not equipped or trained to deal with the chemical firestorm that many now refer to as 'the hellfire'.
Wednesday's testimony before the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was filled with information about a variety of issues that delayed the response and put firefighters on the scene at greater risk. This could increase their chances of sustaining serious health problems throughout their lives.
Around 300 firefighters from 50 fire departments raced to the scene in East Palestine, the scene of the train derailment on February 3. Many of them were volunteers, without any hazmat training or special equipment.
Officials investigating the accident testified that they were unable to obtain information from the first responders about chemicals found in the 11 cars that had been flipped.
Jennifer Homendy (chair of the National Transportation Safety Board), the agency that investigated the crash, asked senators for meaningful changes to inform the affected communities and first responders.
"People should know the chemical levels in their communities, and how they can stay safe during an emergency. This includes all responders who risk their lives every day for us. They should be prepared," Homendy stated.
Malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, is twice as common among firefighters than it is in the general population. This may be due to exposure to asbestos from burning buildings.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.
Mike DeWine stated Wednesday that he is concerned about the long-term well-being of firefighters who responded to this derailment.
He said that all of them need to be evaluated. "They need to establish a baseline and be assured that there is still a place for them to go in five or ten years."
DeWine testified before the committee, "We look to railroads to establish that fund."
Chemicals and chaos
The derailment took place at 9 p.m. on February 3. Night air quickly became suffocated with smoke. Visibility was poor and some placards from overturned railcars were burned away. Responders were left unsure of what chemicals were leaking and setting fire to them.
AskRail is an app that provides more information on the trains involved in accidents. However, Homendy stated that none of the East Palestine first responders had access to this app.
Even if they could use it, the app lists the cars according to their order on the train. This information might have been limited to firefighters who were trying to find cars that were 'bunched-up' and not in their usual order.
He told senators that there are better ways to get urgent information to the first responders.
For example, telematics systems installed in cars can transmit information about an accident to emergency dispatchers, who can then relay it to responders.
Comstock stated that en route to a motor car accident, the car had flipped three times, its airbags went out, and it contains information about that vehicle - whether it is an electric car or not. This is something Comstock needed to be concerned about.
Crews that responded to the train's derailment did not have such information.
Homendy stated that they didn't have enough information to know what was on the train for quite some time.
Firefighters seek better training, gear
Norfolk Southern, which owns and operates the train has been criticised for its response. It announced it would create a regional training center for first-responders. In testimony before the committee Wednesday, CEO Alan Shaw reiterated that promise.
The company plans to expand Operation Awareness & Response, its program that travels across 22 states to teach first responders how they can stay safe following train accidents.
Comstock stated that training is essential, but more gear is also important. Comstock stated that most fire stations in the region can provide a single set for each crew member: the protective jacket, pants, boots and gloves firefighters wear, as well as the helmets.
He said, "When I have to wash it, I'm outof service." Three firefighters were exposed as a result of the derailment. Their gear was contaminated. It is not safe to use.
He said that it takes six months for replacement gear to be ordered.
He stated that he had three firefighters who have been out of service for six month and can't respond in an emergency to structure fires or auto accidents.
Even so, even this basic gear isn’t made to withstand hazardous materials such as the chemicals used on the Norfolk Southern train.
This type of incident requires firefighters to wear hazmat suits. They can cost up to $15,000 per suit, Comstock testified.
He stated that while it was unrealistic for the federal government that all departments would receive this assistance, he suggested that a regional approach be considered so that we can add to what we are doing.
Comstock stated that he hopes that the committee will take into account the needs of firefighters when it drafts legislation to correct the mistakes of the East Palestine incident.
He stated that the incident highlighted the need to train and equip firefighters to respond in an emergency to hazardous material incidents. This was especially important for rural areas where volunteer fire departments are often lacking sufficient resources, tax base, and manpower.