Maine fire departments signing up for more rail safety training

Lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster include making sure firefighters, police officers and other first responders have available counseling and mental health support and that they work in shifts to minimize fatigue.
Jackman Maine rail crossing
Trains that have carried crude oil have passed through the middle of Jackman — just as they had through Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Photo by Jeff Pouland.

Ever since a crude oil train disaster decimated a Quebec village’s downtown last July, more and more Maine fire departments have been requesting training on rail safety.

“I’m booking right now straight into November,” said Richard Towle, who coordinates such training as a law enforcement liaison for the Federal Rail Administration.

The catastrophe at Lac-Mégantic took center stage at this week’s state emergency responder conference at the Augusta Civic Center when a panel of Lac-Mégantic officials emphasized the need for better support for the firefighters and police officers on the ground of a disaster.

Almost ten months ago, a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in the small Quebec town ten miles from the Maine border. Thousands of gallons of the highly flammable crude oil spilled from ruptured tank cars, setting off fireballs in the town’s center that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings.

During the conference, the Detroit and Pittsfield fire chiefs requested basic rail training according to Towle, who spoke at a workshop on emergency preparedness for railway incidents. Rail lines that have carried crude oil pass through those two towns.

Towle said he is also helping coordinate planning for the Rangeley Fire Department, whose fire chief, Tim Pellerin, testified to the U.S. Senate on April 9 about the need for more training for local firefighters and other emergency responders.

Pellerin urged the creation of internet-based training programs for firefighters, as well as stricter federal requirements for oil safety plans.

“We’re finding the online training works, but the one-on-one [training] is far more effective because they come up with questions and they stick to it,” said Towle, who helped plan the 2012 New England Rail Safety Exercise.

He said the program has trained 1200 local responders, planners and instructors across New England, including at least 100 Maine public safety officials.

Lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster include making sure firefighters, police officers and other first responders have available counseling and mental health support and that they work in shifts to minimize fatigue.

Canadian federal health professionals were called in to help Lac-Mégantic citizens, according to panel speakers Quebec Police Emergency Management Operations Coordinator René Cayer and Daniel Campagna, the chief of police for Le Granit County, in which Lac-Mégantic lies.

Cayer estimated that about half the responders came from the village of 5,932.

The town is so small that those responders knew many of those who perished, said Cayer, who was the commanding officer in charge of response for the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

“Downtown Mégantic is still a war zone,” he said. “The town is cut in half, and it will stay that way for many years. People are still sad about it.”

Cayer said other concerns included high levels of benzene in the air, sweltering temperatures over 100 degrees and townspeople who, in order to return to their homes for personal possessions, jumped 8-foot fences set up by emergency responders.

Franklin County Emergency Management Agency director Tim Hardy also spoke at the conference.

Hardy, also deputy chief of the Farmington Fire Department, was one of 45 Maine firefighters who provided support at Lac-Mégantic as part of an existing emergency management agreement between Canada and the United States.

Hardy said that on the morning of the disaster, he received a call from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, who asked him to bring Class B foam, which can smother petroleum fires, to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Hardy began working with Maine Emergency Management Agency director Bruce Fitzgerald to determine the availability of a foam cache in South Portland.

He said five minutes later he received a call to instead bring specialized fire apparatus and manpower to the scene of the disaster, where he and other Maine firefighters worked dousing still-hot tank cars with water.

Hardy, along with the other speakers, said he’ll never forget witnessing the disaster first-hand.

Fitzgerald, whose agency helped organize the conference, told the firefighters, “I think everybody from Maine understands that it could happen in our state just as easily as it happened across the border, so learning from you and your experience has been really important for us.”


Marina Villeneuve

Marina Villeneuve was an investigative reporting fellow in 2014 for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. She primarily worked on accountability projects on public safety and state government.
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