Elgin firefighters prep for derailment 'doomsday'
"Here's what we're looking at for a doomsday," Elgin Assistant Fire Chief Dave Schmidt says.
He points to a screen shot of downtown Elgin with a circle showing a 1.5-mile radius.
Inside are 10,500 structures and thousands of people that emergency workers would have to evacuate if a railroad track warped by heat, a faulty train wheel or a defective tank car caused hazardous materials to spill out into the environment.
What comes next? That's what Schmidt and a roomful of firefighters try to envision.
A tank car full of ethanol and a resulting fireball. A tank car loaded with chlorine that releases toxic fumes. A tank car filled with vinyl chloride that leaks into the air and water.
"Your adrenaline's rushing. You've got people screaming at you. Evaluate your options. Know what you're dealing with," advises CN hazmat expert John Day.
The tabletop exercise Elgin firefighters participated in Wednesday was local, but concerns over tank car safety are national, particularly with growth in the shipment of crude oil.
Friday, federal regulators released new standards for tank cars built after October 2015 that carry highly flammable liquids such as ethanol and crude oil. The rules require thicker shells, better pressure relief valves, thermal protection and improved braking.
Older tank cars that carry dangerous flammables must be retrofitted.
But some local officials and Illinois lawmakers including Sen. Dick Durbin say the changes aren't tough enough to prevent disasters such as the explosion in Galena where a crude oil train derailed in early March.
Elgin is crisscrossed by three freight railways -- Canadian National, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific, plus a Metra line.
With input from Day and Union Pacific hazmat manager Matt Thompson, firefighters troubleshoot micro and macro decisions they could face.
What about parking for hundreds of emergency vehicles? Where's the foam to put out a fireball? Where do we take the elderly? What if it's radioactive material? How do you read a technical freight train manifest? Can pets be taken to shelters?
For the firefighters, some of the recommendations are counterintuitive.
In the event of an explosion involving oil or ethanol, they're warned to hold off applying foam unless there's enough of a supply. Running out of foam halfway through a fire can be counterproductive and waste an expensive product, the experts explain.
"Do we give up? Let the thing go?" asks one firefighter.
"There's times when there's nothing you can do," Day said. The discussion continues with everyone reaching consensus that you can hose tank cars to cool them down but stay away from flames or risk a greater conflagration.
Then there are airborne hazards. First-responders rushing to a derailment have to decipher what's involved using specialized numbers on the side of cars. UN 1005, for example, is ammonia anhydrous, while UN 1170 is ethanol.
Firefighters debate the best ways to reach railroad officials and get a list of cargo contents and when to rely on air monitors when there's a silent danger.
"Our inherent notion is to fix things," Schmidt said. "With a structure fire we go in and set up a line." But with an unknown chemical spill, "firefighters can get killed if they're too aggressive. You have to gather intelligence."
He speculates about a chlorine leak that would involve a mass evacuation. "We're used to evacuating for flooding -- a neighborhood here and there. But if you have to evacuate a quarter of the city -- that's huge coordinating logistics."
After talk about prevailing winds in the case of a vapor cloud and when to call the water district, the session winds up.
It's been a disaster-filled few hours, but the mood is upbeat.
"We're better prepared," Schmidt says.
Friday, the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission talked to federal regulators about the airport's Fly Quiet program aimed at reducing overnight noise.
Relief can't come soon enough for Kim Myers, who moved from Arlington Heights to Hanover Park in 2005 to escape airplane noise only to have runway changes bring the din to her new home.
"This new influx of noise not only affects our sleep, it shakes our house, makes our dogs bark, we sometimes can't even hear each other outside, and it totally affects our quality of life. We can never decompress, and we look forward to bad weather because the planes stop," she wrote.
Got an opinion on planes or trains? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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