How prepared are emergency responders to deal with a chemical spill that could have serious health an environmental implications? The answer to that varies widely depending on the size of the community and the budget of the emergency departments. That's where a program called TRANSCAER comes in.
TRANSCAER, which stands for Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response, is a national outreach effort that brings chemical and transportation industry experts into local communities to provide free transportation and chemical safety training to emergency personnel. The Dow Chemical Company has been running the program for 23 years and has seen it expand significantly in recent years. Dow recently partnered with Union Pacific to bring training to all communities along the companies' shared routes by 2012 and expects more growth in the future by brining the program to communities in Mexico and Canada.
The program brings emergency responders from small communities into hands-on training sessions that focus on railroad equipment training, hazardous material handling and emergency response drills. Tim Scott, chief security officer and director of emergency services and security for Dow, gave CSO an overview of the program and its mission.
The TRANSCAER program is free training for responders in communities that might not be able to afford it otherwise. Tell us more about that:
The program is really designed to get out to the small communities. The people that really benefit from this are the small cities that don't have the big budgets to send responders to a course like this. Typically it would be a thousand dollars a person to go to a course like this. We do a whistle stop tour and we stop and do a one-day course in these communities. We go from small city to small city because that is the audience we are looking to touch.
This program has been around for 23 years. What's changed since its inception?
Since 2001, a lot has changed. A lot more people have become engaged in it. There is a lot more community involvement, a lot more government involvement. The program started with two companies out doing their own program and working with it with their local communities. But it has now expanded to dozens of companies involved across the nation. Various industry associations are involved now and a lot of government agencies are involved. So it has grown from a few people sitting in a conference room to hundreds of people working on this process across the nation. Through the years we have helped train and raise the awareness of literally thousands of responders.
Give us some details about the training responders receive.
We have training cars that actually go to the scene for the training. We have a classroom car where you actually sit in and some classroom-type training. But the strong part about it is we have real cars that responders may see out on a scene. They can get up on top of cars, look at the configuration of the cars. We have cars that come apart and you can open them up to see what they look like inside. You can actually touch the valves and change the valves and see how the valves work. You can suit up in the equipment you are going to have to wear if you respond to a scene. It's really a hands-on training so when they arrive on a scene, it's not the first time that they have ever seen the situation or the rail cars, or the equipment they are going to have to use.
What kind of scenario do you lay out for responders who are training?
Any kind of chemical spill: Derailment of a rail car, for instance. Or a truck overturns carrying chemicals.
The training starts off with recognition of the problem. There are some problems where you just back off and call in people that respond to these kinds of emergencies all the time. So the first step is to recognize: What is the situation? What is the chemical involved? Do you have the right experience to address that issue? Do you have the right equipment? If the answer is yes, you can go in and start to do the initial assessment of the emergency and call in the right people to help as needed. It's really about safety for the responders so they don't rush into something and get themselves injured.
How do you train responders to move or handle hazardous materials?
With both hands on training about specific types of chemicals and classroom training to understand the different characteristics of the chemicals and their different hazards.
Most major cities have very experienced HAZMAT response teams. If you look at cities like Houston, Chicago or New York, they have well-trained teams. As you get into smaller communities, especially communities that have volunteers, such as volunteer fire departments, they do a very good job at what they do, but HAZMAT response is not something they do every day. We give them the recognition class so they know how to recognize, when to pass on information, when do they need to evacuate the area to protect the community. ---PB-- Who are the folks that generally take part in these sessions?
We do a few classes. Police department is usually first on the scene. They get the awareness and recognition class. But their role description is typically to secure the scene. They don't respond to fix the event. They respond to secure the area so the community doesn't wander in and get themselves hurt. So it's awareness training we give to police.
The actual responders; from the fire department or contract companies that are HAZMAT responders, we give the hands-on training of how to deal with specific chemicals, railcars and those areas.
What kinds of chemicals would commonly be involved in an emergency scenario?
Any you can think of. Some of the major ones that you hear about are chlorine and oxidizers. You hear about explosives. So everyone has a different kind of response. But most HAZMAT chemicals that are being transported around the country are very critical to various products and things we use very day.
Does training get as detailed as being able to tell the difference between one chemical and another?
They are trained to know the class of chemical. All railcars are marked with specific Department of Transportation markings so you know if you are dealing with a corrosive material, or an explosive material, and you can look at the car and tell if it's full or empty.
How serious can these spills be? What kind of danger might a community face?
There are both health concerns and environmental concerns; those are the two big issues you are trying to eliminate. For example: Look out on the highway and you'll see the number of trucks that are carrying gasoline. That can be a very hazardous material in the wrong situation. We try to look at things that we know are truly hazardous materials.
Another thing to keep in mind, from industry perspective, is if a truck goes around the corner and spills milk in someone's front yard, that don't know what that is. So we try to give them the right contact numbers so someone can get out there and handle that situation appropriately.
Have there been instances when communities you've trained have had to put this education into practice and have told you the training really helped?
We've got some feedback like over the years. The good news is these spills are not news which means they are being handled appropriately by responders. Between either awareness or the actual response, you don't have any injuries and that's what we want.