AAR, NS Boost AskRail Access

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Beaver County, PA Emergency Communications Center. (Photograph Courtesy of AAR)

Beaver County, PA Emergency Communications Center. (Photograph Courtesy of AAR)

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) on Sept. 18 reported working with member company Norfolk Southern (NS) to integrate AskRail into the dispatching services of the Columbiana County, Ohio, and Beaver County, Pa., emergency management agencies (EMA).

This follows a pilot project that AAR and the Sumner County, Tenn., EMA teamed on earlier this year.

The AskRail app, which launched in 2014, is a collaborative effort among the emergency response community and all Class I railroads (BNSF, CN, CSX, NS, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific Kansas City). Currently, it provides more than 2.3 million first responders—from 49 states, the District of Columbia and eight Canadian provinces—“with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency,” according to Railinc, the app developer and a wholly owned AAR subsidiary.

In March, just weeks after the Feb. 3 NS derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, AAR reported that the industry was expanding its efforts to get the AskRail app into the hands of every first responder.

AAR Director of Hazmat Compliance, Andy Elkins, gives an in-depth look at the app to members of the Columbiana, OH Emergency Communications Center. (Caption and Photograph Courtesy of AAR)

According to the association, the railroads’ AskRail objectives have been to increase continuity of coverage and information, ensure reliability of communications streams, and streamline communications to create a more efficient response.

To further improve accessibility, AAR said AskRail has been integrated into CHEMTREC and CANUTEC’s 24/7 call centers in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. Through existing hazmat certification programs, first responders are trained to use these call centers for assistance in managing a chemical emergency response. This integration ensures that AskRail is now universally available to first responders in these two countries, according to the association.

“However, railroads recognize that most volunteer fire departments, which make up nearly 82% of all U.S. fire departments and protect almost 30% of the U.S. population, according to the National Fire Protection Association, may be unfamiliar with CHEMTREC,” AAR said. “Instead, when volunteer responders are called to the scene of an emergency, they are trained to utilize their county’s EMA or Emergency Communications Centers (ECC), more commonly known as dispatch, as their primary line of communication.”

By integrating AskRail into ECCs, AAR said, railroads ensure that those forces have access to information via “established, streamlined and reliable communications channels.” The association noted that ECCs “are mandated to always have backup power generation, redundant radio communications to first responders in the field and around-the-clock staffing.” By leveraging these centers, AAR said, AskRail data “becomes an integral part of the standard communication protocols for all first responders—whether paid or volunteer—for handling potential emergencies within a community.”

AAR pointed out that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in July issued a safety advisory notice that noted: “Maintaining multiple access points to the emergency response information via both the emergency responders at the scene, as well as via 9-1-1 call centers, provides redundancy and helps ensure access to necessary information in the event of cellular data outage due to inclement weather, power failure, or lack of coverage at the accident site.” (The agency also recently proposed a new rule requiring all railroads to “always maintain—and update in real-time—accurate, electronic information about rail hazmat shipments in a train consist that would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel.”)

Expanding this access in Columbiana and Beaver counties, AAR said, “is just one more step the railroads are taking to support first responders and protect the communities they serve.” According to the association, PHMSA officials were present for the trainings in Columbiana and Beaver counties.

The “ultimate goal of the AAR and its members is integrating AskRail into the nation’s ECCs,” the association concluded. 

Ian Jefferies, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads

“Serving nearly every community across the nation, railroads are dedicated to preventing an accident before it happens and also bear the responsibility of equipping first responders with the right tools and training to manage a rail emergency safely and effectively,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said. “Following the East Palestine incident, railroads pledged to dramatically increase the availability of AskRail and today are providing more than 2.3 million first responders with streamlined and reliable access to this critical tool.”

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