Canadian firefighters had their hands full after a freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Quebec on July 6, setting a town on fire and killing dozens of people.
In its aftermath, U.S. officials called for more oversight on train cars used to carry fuels and federal regulators issued a rule aimed at preventing entire trains from rolling downhill.
While officials talked about political and administrative remedies to prevent a similar disaster in the U.S., members of the military were donning biological hazard suits and practicing what they’d do in the event of a Quebec-like disaster.
About 500 soldiers descended downstate in Westchester County for a weekend of training in the second week of August, an event U.S. Army Lt. Col. Aron Sacchetti said was planned long before Schenectady and Montgomery counties saw three trains derail, and before the deadly disaster in Canada.
A mess the size of the July 6 train derailment is but one of numerous scenarios the Homeland Response Force for FEMA Region II practices for. These members of the National Guard and Air National Guard are the ones who would respond to the Capital Region in the event a freight train toppled and exploded in a populated area.
“We chose that scenario last fall, and in the time since, there have been half a dozen significant train incidents from New Jersey to Quebec,” said Sacchetti, the Troy-based executive officer for the FEMA Region II Homeland Response Force.
Locally, a mobile home community — and Glenville’s drinking water supply wells — were threatened when Pan Am/Guilford Rail employees lost control of a freight train that rolled downhill and crashed just feet from homes in February.
Months later, two CSX freight trains derailed near the Mohawk River in Montgomery County just west of Fonda on June 27. Officials have said no hazardous materials aside from diesel fuel were spilled, but one freight car landed on Route 5. The derailment left that portion of Route 5 shut down for weeks. It reopened temporarily this week.
Luckily, there were no fires reported in either derailment.
The Homeland Response Force consists of members of the Troy-based 42nd Infantry Division headquarters; the 104th Military Police Battalion from Kingston; the 222nd Chemical Company from Fort Hamilton; New York City-based New York Guard volunteers of the 88th Brigade; and Air National Guard medical personnel and military security from the New Jersey National Guard.
The derailment exercise at the Westchester County Fire Training Center was timely enough to receive promotion by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who issued a news release to demonstrate New York state’s efforts to prepare for the worst.
“Training our soldiers and first responders before a disaster strikes is a top priority when it comes to keeping New Yorkers safe,” Cuomo said in the release. “Recent years have shown us the need to prepare for the unthinkable or unlikely, and exercises like this are an important step toward building a world-class emergency response network that is ready for any crisis.”
A mangled mess of steel containers and flames puts one critical team first on the scene because it’s unclear in the immediate aftermath of a derailment what was on the train to begin with. Answering that question falls on the “civil support team,” Sacchetti said.
He described this team’s capabilities as “highly technical.” They are on call full-time throughout the year and bring the ability to identify the vast majority of agents, or chemicals, that might be on a train.
They have an advanced team that aims for a 90-minute response time in FEMA’s Region II, which covers all of New York and New Jersey, in addition to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The entire team of more than 20 expects to be on a scene, when needed, within three hours.
“Very quickly we do have an ability to identify what an agent is,” Sacchetti said.
The August training scenario entailed noxious chemicals, so soldiers had to gear up with hazardous-material suits to do their work.
Often, the military trains for incidents considered a primary goal of terrorists — dropping some radioactive material to contaminate multiple victims. But Sacchetti said even accidents can require a full response by the Homeland Response Force.
He said there doesn’t appear to be any focus on the part of regulators to govern what is stored where with trains — so it’s just as likely a tanker with flammables can be sitting in front of a tanker full of garbage, fuel for the flammables if they catch fire.
“Which is kind of why we are preparing for these types of events. They could happen and could very quickly take on catastrophic characteristics,” he said.
Sacchetti said the Homeland Response Force has three primary missions when it responds to a massive disaster: save lives, protect property and mitigate suffering.
There’s already a chain of contact between local first responders and officials higher up, including the Homeland Response Force, but Sacchetti said officials are eyeing “more robust training” between local and military first responders.
“It’s continually evolving, and we’re definitely going in the right direction for being better prepared,” Sacchetti said.