Fire experts push special teams for oil train blazes

Most departments lack training, equipment that's needed, they argue

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — A pair of Texans with decades of firefighting experience are encouraging state and local government leaders to consider establishing SWAT-like response teams for crude oil train fires.

A series of derailments of trains loaded with crude oil in the past year has exposed numerous safety vulnerabilities, including the integrity of the rail cars, the condition of the tracks and the way the trains are operated.

It’s also revealed a yawning gap in emergency response. Most fire departments across the country are simply not trained or equipped to fight the enormous fires seen in recent derailments.

“Emergency response is the most difficult part,” said Bob Andrews, founder and president of the San Antonio-based Bob Andrews Group, who has both firefighting experience and knowledge of the rail industry.

Groups representing firefighters, fire chiefs and emergency management agencies have testified in Congress in recent months that derailments such as those in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota are beyond their response capabilities.

“There’s only so much training you can do,” said Sam Goldwater, Andrews’ business partner. “Our first responders are pretty much maxed out.”

Andrews and Goldwater said they’ve received a favorable response so far from the state and federal officials they’ve approached.

Andrews and Goldwater say that airports and refineries have their own firefighting teams with special expertise and equipment. And, they say, that’s precisely what’s demanded by the rise in crude oil shipments by rail.

In March testimony before a Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee, Andrews said that the nation’s 783,000 volunteer firefighters are dedicated to their work. But according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, their ranks have declined 13 percent since 1984.

“It is not fair for the community, at the local or state level, to create an environment where well-meaning volunteers will feel compelled to commit themselves to conducting highly hazardous operations, that they are neither trained, nor equipped to perform,” Andrews testified.

Tim Burn, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that a broad-based training program was still the best approach.

“It is the duty of government to provide the resources needed for hazmat response,” he said, “and this public safety discussion should not be driven by profit motive.”