Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos from the training exercise.
WHITEFISH – It was the worst-case scenario, as smoke and chemicals spewed from a leaky valve on top of a railroad tank car. Firefighters and first responders quickly donned huge chemical protection suits and climbed aboard the car, not knowing what they were going to find.
Luckily for Whitefish and residents who live along BNSF Railway’s tracks, this was only a drill. On Sept. 27, first responders from around Northwest Montana got a chance to enhance their skills aboard BNSF’s hazardous materials training car. The rail car features different types of caps and valves to simulate a fuel or gas leak. The training comes as more and more crude oil from North Dakota is traveling through the Flathead Valley.
“As the amount of crude oil being moved on rail increases, it’s great to have these cars on hand to help train first responders,” said BNSF spokesperson Matt Jones.
Since 2008, there has been a nearly 7,000 percent increase in the volume of oil BNSF moves and last year it hauled 88.9 million barrels. Justin Piper, manager of BNSF’s hazardous materials program, said crude oil is now the most abundant chemical moved by the railroad.
In 2012, BNSF conducted 185 hazardous material training sessions for more than 4,400 first responders in 21 states and one Canadian province. Since 1996, the railroad has trained more than 60,000 local first responders along its 32,500-mile rail network. Jones said the training session in Whitefish is the first of a handful of training exercices in Montana in the coming weeks.
The exercises attracted first responders from Whitefish, Kalispell, Coram, Bigfork and other communities in the valley. The session started with a briefing about general safety along the railroad and how to respond to emergencies along the tracks, not just fuel spills. In some instances, an accident may not involve the railroad itself but be close to the tracks, Jones said. In that instance, first responders should call the railroad to make sure that any nearby trains are stopped.
“It’s all about not making a bad situation worse,” he said.
After the general safety briefing, firefighters and hazardous materials responders donned chemical suits and climbed on top of the rail car to plug different types of leaks. Kalispell firefighter Greg Daenzer said although a chemical leak or train derailment is rare, it’s important to be ready.
“It’s important,” he said. “You want to train as much as you can for the situation you’ll see the least because it’s the one your most unfamiliar with.”
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