Photos courtesy of Southern Pacific Company
Railroad Goes to Fire Departments With Hazardous Materials Program
A century ago, railroad fire hazards were simple. An occasional locomotive spark might ignite a town’s wooden sidewalks or burn down the livery stable.
Today’s railroad fire and rescue problems are far more complex, and the tank car loaded with exotic chemicals is only one of many hazards. To deal with these problems along the right-of-way, a number of major railroads, particularly in the South and West, have formed their own high-level corporate divisions (examples are the Burlington Northern, Union Pacific, and St. Louis-San Francisco systems). Such a group typically has three objectives:
- Educating fire fighters on the nature of railroad Fire problems and how to attack them.
- Providing specialized emergency equipment which may not otherwise be available to many fire departments.
- Making trained manpower available to assist fire departments at an emergency in every possible way.
Railroad president involved
A leader in this Field since 1975 has been the giant Southern Pacific Transportation Company, descendant of the West’s first transcontinental line, operating over 18,000 track miles in a dozen states from Missouri to Oregon. Southern Pacific’s President D.K. McNear is a member of the 12-man Task Force on Rail Transportation of Hazardous Materials that was put together a couple of years ago by the Manufacturing Chemists Association and the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
Each year, an estimated million carloads of hazardous materials move over United States railroads. The SP handles 120,000 of them, or more than 10 percent. From San Francisco, Bob Andre, the SP’s hazardous materials control superintendent, heads a group of six men located in Houston, Los Angeles, and Roseville, Calif. Altogether, this team has nearly a century of experience in its Field. Its services are available 24 hours a day.
One of the group’s first tasks was to develop training programs on rail emergencies that could be used to teach both employees and the fire services along the SP’s routes. Mention the problem of hazardous rail cargoes to the average Fire fighter and he at once thinks of the spectacular train wreck, the explosion which wipes out a whole community.
Leaking tank cars
Despite their destructive power, however, such accidents are infrequent. Far more widely encountered is the leaking tank car. Often unsuspected, requiring specialized knowledge to repair, such leaks occur as often as 400 times a year along the Southern Pacific system alone. So this problem was the First one dealt with by the hazardous materials control group.
“This is one of the most common headaches we face,” explained Andre. “Very few people realize that railroads own none of the compressed gas tank cars, the kind that frequently find their way into newspaper headlines. Nor do railroad personnel load or unload these cars. Our leakers are inherited as a result of improper loading or unloading procedures by shippers. So our employees were unfamiliar with leaking tank cars and yet were being faced with them frequently.”
Therefore, the SP produced a unique audiovisual training program titled “Keeping Hazardous Materials Contained in Tank Cars.” It includes 79 slides accompanied by narration. But looking and listening are not enough.
“We felt that nothing short of actual tank car equipment could provide the all-important first time, hands-on experience of actually repairing a leak,” Andre pointed out.
Dome mobiles built
To give fire fighters a chance to actually handle typical tank car valve equipment, the company has constructed four complete replicas of tank car domes. For each one, three different cars were stripped of their domes, valves, and appurtenances, and this equipment was mounted on a 15-foot trailer. These trailers, called “dome mobiles,” have been used to train 20,000 fire fighters in 500 fire departments along SP lines since 1975 (besides 3000 railroad workers and many shipper representatives).
The tank car dome, a circular steel housing at the car’s top center, houses a complex array of fittings that vary considerably among the three main car types (compressed gas, flammable liquid, and acid). A typical compressed gas car dome, for example, contains two liquid eduction valves, a vapor eduction valve, a sampling valve, a spring-loaded safety relief valve, a level gaging device, and a thermometer well. These cars are loaded by volume, which will vary with temperature, so a check of car loading must include measurement of contents temperature.
To add realism, the trailer’s compressed gas fittings are arranged to simulate leaks that can be seen and smelled. A mixture of odorized carbon dioxide and Freon is fed to the fittings under pressure.
Explained Andre, “When this stuff leaks, there is absolutely no discernible difference between the simulated experience and reality. After thorough instruction in repair procedures, leaks are produced by the instructor for correction by the trainees.”
Participants become familiar with the special tools needed, such as T-handle and crowfoot wrenches. They learn about rupture discs that relieve internal pressure in acid cars. They learn the difference between top-operating and bottom-unloading valves. Some of the other techniques covered are:
- 1. Stopping packing leaks on eduction valves.
- 2. Replacing 0-ring seals on safety valves.
- 3. Handling outlet cap leaks on bottom-unloading flammable liquid cars.
- 4. Replacing cover plate gaskets on acid cars.
- 5. Workings of the gaging device, which determines the level of the liquid-vapor interface inside a compressed gas car. It is here where most leaks occur.
The four dome mobiles are based in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, and Pine Bluff, Ark. A complete training session with the unit takes 1 1/2 hours.
Dangerous though they may be, tank car leaks are just one of the problems for fire departments along a railroad line. During the 1970s, the nation’s railroads have annually suffered $15 to $20 million in fire loss. Fires in locomotives and freight cars present several unusual hazards calling for special fire fighter training.
For that, the SP produced a second audiovisual program titled, “Emergency Fire Fighting Procedures on Railroad Equipment.” This one-hour presentation includes 56 slides covering two subjects:
- Potential fire problems of diesel-electric locomotive.
- Fires in closed boxcars, or in the two types of containerized freight: truck-trailers on flatcars, or the intercontinental shipping container.
In the first category, the training highlights Class B and C locomotive fire dangers. A typical power unit—and it may take five or six of them to pull a long train on inter-city main lines—carries a 2500-kw main generator, a 74-volt starting battery, and a 4000-gallon tank of diesel fuel. The SP’s program shows the location and use of emergency shutdown switches (both inside and outside the locomotive) to stop the generator or to disconnect the battery, how to gauge the amount of fuel on board, and where fire extinguishers are located.
Training put to use
This education was timely for the Elko, Nev., Fire Department. On the evening of Jan. 5, 1978, less than a month after Elko fire fighters took the training, a freight train rolled into town with a locomotive on fire.
Chief Bill Fogle later told SP officials, “The captain on shift knew just what to do to shut down the unit and bring the fire under control. Afterwards, I was talking with the crew on the train and they were relating to me about the firemen knowing what to do and that they were glad that they did. The excitement caused the train crew members themselves to forget just what to do. So thanks for a top quality training package.”
Incidentally, although SP tracks pass through Elko, this incident involved equipment of another railroad. Diesel locomotive operating features are much the same throughout the industry—everywhere in the country.
Only a few weeks later, Elko began working with the dome mobile program—and had a tank car incident in the city at the same time.
Similar to the handling of locomotive fires, though on a far smaller scale, are problems with the mechanical refrigeration equipment in modern refrigerator cars. Unlike the old type, kept cool by blocks of ice stacked in car bunkers, these cars contain a complete electrical cooling system powered by a 220-volt generator. This is driven by a diesel engine in a large side compartment near one end of the car. Beneath the car is a 500-gallon fuel tank. These cars also have emergency shutdown controls, the location and use of which are shown in the SP training package. Some piggyback truck trailers shipped on rail flatcars use similar engine-driven refrigeration systems.
It is the boxcar fire, however, that presents the most common rail fire problem. A blaze within a closed container shipment is of the same type. Accustomed to attack fires within closed spaces by first ventilating, then extinguishing, fire fighters will find such tactics unsuited to boxcar fires.
Instead, Southern Pacific teaches the indirect method. Since its development by the company in 1964 to fight baled cotton fires, this procedure, according to the SP, “has since proven to be one of the safest and most efficient approaches to fighting all types of freight container fires.”
Indirect attack used
Key to the indirect method is leaving car doors tightly closed to keep oxygen from the fire within. Another reason for the closed-door policy is the likelihood that the car will be loaded to the roof. That means fire stream access through opened doors may be quite limited. Moreover, burning debris falling through the doorway may endanger personnel.
Rather, fire fighters should find the general location of the fire by feel or by observing where externally-applied water dries quickly against the car wall. Next, they should cut open the car roof over that area, then introduce fog, swinging the nozzle from side to side until no visible smoke exists from the roof openings. Then the car doors should stay closed for at least another hour to ensure final extinguishment.
Fire fighters used to an “open it up, then knock it down” technique may not be aware of the risk of explosion inside boxcars containing no hazardous or explosive commodity. This can occur with auto tire shipments, for example. Opening the car doors, or making vent openings in the car bottom as well as the top, can let in enough air to violently ignite gases produced by long smoldering combustion. Furthermore, applying water to the contents can build up a high steam pressure within the car.
Any internal explosion is likely to blow off the doors, which form the weakest areas of the car structure. Therefore, everybody should keep well away from them.
Trainees are also cautioned that burning non-hazardous materials often create toxic gases, so the wearing of breathing apparatus is encouraged. The indirect method of fire fighting does not lead to a free-burning blaze which burns off or vents such combustion products.
How to get information
Included with the SR program is a 10-page handout titled, “How to Obtain Emergency Response Information on the Southern Pacific Railroad—A Guide for Firemen.” This describes the data available form the following sources:
A. On board the train itself. Besides waybills giving car contents, hazard classes, Standard Transportation Commodity Code, or STCC, numbers, placarding, etc., each SR freight caboose carries the 700-page book, “Emergency Handling of Hazardous Materials in Surface Transportation,” issued by the AAR Bureau of Explosives. Each of 1675 different materials is listed alphabetically, with the basic nature of its hazard, fire attack for combustibles, and personnel protection needed. (The SP also distributed several thousand copies of this AAR book to all its on-line fire departments).
Each caboose also carries a poster explaining the DOT placarding system and the risks involved with each type of placarded cargo.
B. Railroad computer. Fire department dispatchers can contact SP officials by using a listing of eight 24-hour phone numbers, depending on the region involved, giving only the identifying initials and number of the freight car concerned, to request waybill data. If the car itself cannot be identified in a wreck, the locomotive or caboose numbers can identify the train. Numbers of the cars immediately adjacent to a derailed portion of train helps pinpoint the wrecked cars themselves.
The SP’s computer system will then print out the complete hazard data from the AAR book.
In a January 1979 letter to Southern Pacific, Chief Clyde Bragdon of the Los Angeles County Fire Department praised all this as “an outstanding multimedia presentation of proper emergency procedures for railway incidents…This training program and your company’s attitude of preparedness will greatly improve our ability to work together in the control of any incidents on Southern Pacific rails with Los Angeles County.”
“Very impressive,” was the comment by Kern County, Calif., Chief Phil Anderson.
Material from this and the dome mobile training packages has been given to both the AAR and the U.S. Department of Transportation for use elsewhere in the country. In addition, fire science education courses at colleges in California, the Arizona State Fire School, and the California Division of Forestry’s Training Academy have used the SP programs. Dome mobile training has been regularly presented at the Texas A & M Firemen Training School.
Altogether, contended Andre, “This has become one of the largest training efforts ever undertaken by a private transportation company.”
Moreover, because of personnel turnover, Andre added, “Our training efforts are on an ongoing basis. Periodically, we return to each department to train new firemen and refresh those who have previously participated.”
Vans ready with equipment
Recognizing the need for special tools, as well as training, to handle major emergencies, the SP has set up a fleet of eleven vans and trailers in locations from Houston to Roseville that contain hundreds of items of equipment. Because the Texas Gulf Coast area is a center of petrochemical manufacturing and transportation, several of these vehicles are kept in that region.
For example, a 40-foot trailer at Houston carries $54,000 worth of gear, including 10 all-chemical suits, lighting plants, 10 acid hoods, a four-man breathing air system, resuscitator, foam maker with 250 gallons of concentrate, power saws and other heavy rescue tools, 700 feet of hose, transfer and fire pumps, aluminized fire suits and coats, plus many pipe and valve tools. Three 15-foot trailers carry four-man breathing apparatus. Five 3/4-ton vans carry explosimeters, acid suits, sets of chemical reference books, emergency gasket kits, extinguishers, turnout gear, breathing apparatus, and a variety of hand tools.
Much of this equipment can be sent quickly by air to remote locations where it may be needed. Backing it up are the experts of Andre’s group.
One recent instance of this occurred in March 1979 when a 116-car train derailed at Lewisville, Ark. Among the ditched cars were six tankers filled with vinyl chloride and butadiene, one of which caught fire. Railroad personnel recommended evacuation of 1700 townspeople, while two members of the SP’s hazardous materials control team in Houston were notified. They obtained information on car contents from SP’s computer, advised Lewisville fire officials on tactics, then flew there by chartered plane to assist in directing fire fighting operations. Other SP experts were flown in from more distant points during the several days needed to clean up the wreck. No one was seriously hurt.
When such an emergency occurs along a main line in or near a town, access to the scene is not usually a major problem. In a large rail yard or terminal, however, the situation may be quite different (see Fire Engineering, August 1979, page 112).
Yard blueprints available
“We do discuss the question of yard accessibility,” Andre said. “We urge that the local departments contact our engineering department and request a blueprint of the yard which includes fire hydrant and roadway or crossover locations.
“Most yards have designated an ‘emergency spot area’ which has water facilities and is relatively isolated from homes and businesses while still accessible by vehicle and large apparatus. These locations are where a leaking tank car, for example, or a boxcar on fire would be spotted. We also allow and support drills to familiarize fire fighters with yard layouts.”
During 1979, the railroad videotaped a special combined version of the two audiovisual programs for broadcast via closed circuit TV to all 26 fire stations in Portland, Ore.
Added Andre, “We shot a new segment inside a caboose to show where waybills, train consists and emergency response information are found on a train.”
This three-hour package will then be turned over to the Oregon state fire marshal for statewide distribution.
“Unfortunately,” Andre pointed out, “we cannot take the dome mobile program off Southern Pacific lines. However, we do make the audio-visual programs available to all fire departments at cost, regardless of their location. I can be contacted for details on acquisition of the slide-cassette material.”
His address is: C.R. Andre, Supt., Hazardous Materials Control, Southern Pacific Company, One Market Plaza, San Francisco, Calif. 94105. His phone number is 415-362-1212.