With memories of Baltimore's 2001 train tunnel fire still fresh in their minds, local emergency personnel began training yesterday to better understand how to respond to chemical spills and railcar fires.
They used the Safety Train, a railcar modified by BP Amoco PLC for training. The 22,000-gallon modified general tank car is outfitted with most of the valves and fittings that tank cars may contain - a feature which allows instructors to demonstrate proper responses to possible situations posed by spills or derailment.
"Fire departments train to move quickly - get in there and get the fire out," said Gary Zimmer, regulatory compliance manager for BP. "But with these types of containers, moving quickly isn't the thing to do. You need a step-by-step approach. It doesn't need to be done fast, but it needs to be done correctly."
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For an interactive visual demonstration, emergency personnel climbed on top of the car and watched as instructors manipulated valves. They also received lessons from the ground of underside fittings.
BP officials said that a hazardous-material response of any magnitude requires a cooperative effort among several teams, and nonexpert emergency personnel such as firefighters - who are often the first on the scene - need knowledge so they can assist.
Hazardous-material teams from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Harford counties, including emergency medical technicians and paramedics, and Maryland's Department of the Environment emergency response team are participating in the training. Each attends one of six four-hour sessions offered this week.
Zimmer has traveled throughout North America with the Safety Train since its creation in 1987. Most fire departments have little knowledge of tank car construction and design, he said. But the Baltimore County Fire Department's team, the first to attend this week's sessions, had a "pretty good knowledge base," Zimmer said.
"We train for chemicals, but not in this quantity or container," said Captain William Spencer-Strong, a hazardous-material administrator for the Baltimore County department.
Most fire departments are poorly trained in derailment response because the few available programs are too costly, Zimmer said. The training given by BP's Safety Train crew is free.
The Safety Train was last in the area more than five years ago.
The lecture segment of the training, delivered by Drew McCarty, BP's general manager of specialized professional services, emphasized a methodical "quest for the big picture."
One theme from yesterday's lesson was that sometimes the best action is no action.
McCarty's class included a slide show of train fires around the nation, which brought back memories of the Howard Street Tunnel chemical fire that burned for five days in July 2001.
Firefighters initially attempted to enter the tunnel but quickly retreated. "With chemicals, you don't know what you're dealing with, and by the time you do, it's too late," a firefighter at the scene said at the time.
Tunnels present a difficult case because of the enclosed space, and BP training efforts emphasize the opposite of what was initially done - knowing what you are dealing with before taking action.
"We live in an age of hazmats, so there is always a certain amount of risk involved," Zimmer said. "It is my job that in the event of a mishap, we have people who are properly trained and know correct methods of action to take."