PHMSA Releases Rail Emergency Preparedness Advisory

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has published a Safety Advisory Notice for railroad emergency preparedness, in response to the Feb. 3 derailment of 11 Norfolk Southern (NS) hazardous materials tank cars in East Palestine, Ohio.

In the March 3 notice (download below), PHMSA reminded all those engaged in transporting hazmat by rail “of their obligation to appropriately plan for emergencies and share information about available emergency response resources.” The Department also urged them “to take further actions to ensure emergency responders are adequately equipped to respond to rail transportation incidents involving hazmat.”

“Proper preparedness to hazmat accidents begins long before any event occurs and, as a best practice, involves planning by railroads followed by communication with communities,” PHMSA said.

The Safety Advisory Notice, it said, “underscores the applicable basic emergency response requirements” and “reminds railroads of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) long-standing guidance to create and maintain Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Plans.”

The Department urged railroads to review their emergency response plans; to determine whether it is appropriate to expand the plans to cover additional hazmat; to share those plans, along with information on the types of hazmat transported through those communities, with community emergency planners for use in their own planning activities; and to proactively participate in, and initiate exercises with communities, including emergency managers, to ensure they are prepared. 

Additionally PHMSA:

  • Strongly encouraged broader accessibility of the AskRail system. The notice explained that while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the methods used to share hazmat information with responders, “PHMSA is concerned that during the East Palestine derailment and response, some on-scene emergency responders may not have had access to the AskRail system. Access to information through this tool allows responders to determine real-time train consist information and begin response actions without having to locate the train crew and obtain a paper train consist. Emergency responders’ timely access to accurate train consist information is crucial to understanding hazards present in a derailment and other incidents involving a train transporting hazmat.” The Department “strongly” urged railroads to review access to AskRail along their rights-of-way where hazmat is transported to ensure adequate coverage and availability; to be proactive in publicizing AskRail’s availability and utility; and to provide training on the AskRail app to qualified emergency responders.  
  • Reminded railroads of the availability of grant funding. PHMSA noted that it has several grant programs to help fund emergency preparedness and emergency response training at the state, local and tribal levels. They include the Assistance for Local Emergency Response Training grant and the Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant. Often, railroads conduct training for local responders along their rights-of-way, including through their involvement and support of Transcaer™, and during that training, railroads sometimes learn that responders do not have access to funding or other resources necessary to prepare for emergencies, according to PHMSA. “As railroads continue engagement in first responder outreach and training, PHMSA would like to receive prompt feedback if railroads identify a lack of training resources to local responders,” the Department said. “This can help PHMSA get the requisite resources to first responders.”
  • Encouraged railroads to identify further opportunities for emergency response related training.
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