By Rich Kosmoski
Many towns and communities throughout the U.S. have a railroad that passes through. These railroad lines may be used for high-speed cross-country trains, local commuter trains or freight trains moving freight from coast to coast. People living in these communities have a nonchalant attitude towards them because they have grown accustomed to the clackity-clack of the rails.
At 2:45a.m., Jan. 6, 2005, the sound of a crashing train changed a community and its residents living in Graniteville, S.C. The 7,000 residents of this lush Horse Creek Valley in eastern South Carolina rudely were awakened when a freight train took the wrong turn and onto a siding that led to a disaster.
The Norfolk southern freight train was transporting three tanker cars containing chlorine, a highly toxic hazardous material. Liquid chlorine, when mixed with oxygen, turns the liquid into a poisonous green vaporous cloud. Chlorine is toxic and can be fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. The Graniteville incident caused nine fatalities in addition to hundreds of people being injured and needing medical attention. Thousands of homeowners were forced to evacuate the area.
The incident happened in close proximity to the fire station. When it occurred, alarms were put in for the firefighters to respond. The leaking hazardous material was not identified at that point. The firefighters found themselves responding towards their fire station and into the fog before they were able to don their personal protective equipment. They didn't realize the severity of the incident until it was too late. Many sustained life-threatening injuries to their lungs by not being made aware of the hazardous condition.
Ultimately, the responding agencies were able to come together on common grounds and form a unified command system, according to the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System. During the incident, questions arose whether the nine deaths could have been prevented. These deaths occurred within the first 10 minutes of the incident. Luckily, there were only nine deaths because there was the possibility of many more residents succumbing to the hazardous fumes in the air.
An incident of similar nature can happen in any town and doesn't necessarily have to be by railcar. Truckers driving our highways can be just as dangerous while transporting their cargoes as railroad tankers. We must be cautious when responding to any type of hazardous material incident. Our training teaches us that there are certain instances when it is best to stand back and do nothing. It may be better to take a defensive position and protect the surrounding area rather than performing offensive operations.
During our response to either the scene of the incident or the fire station, we should be aware of our surroundings. Stop and think if something looks out of the ordinary. How many times do we as first responders get dispatched to a scene before all the facts are known?
Our first duty is to establish a command structure and then make decisions as to how we are going to proceed. Sometimes, it is better to take a defensive position rather than conducting offensive tactics as these may prove to be deadly.
Rich Kosmoski, M.S., is president of the New Jersey Volunteer Fire Chief's Association. Kosmoski is an instructor at the Middlesex County Fire Academy in Sayreville, N.J.