New York to push Congress on response to oil train fires

07/28/2014 7:39 PM

07/28/2014 7:54 PM

New York state fire officials are pressing Congress for $100 million in emergency funding to pay for a nationwide training program for firefighters to address the new scale of risk presented by trains carrying millions of gallons of flammable crude oil.

The proposal, which will be presented Tuesday at the National Association of State Fire Marshals conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., would also collect a penny per gallon of oil shipped by rail. The dedicated fund would be administered by the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The New York proposal would fund firefighter training and the establishment of strategically located caches of firefighting foam and equipment.

New York and other states have become major destinations for crude oil trains and the focal point for safety concerns. Officials from those states have become the most vocal in pushing lawmakers in Washington to act with more urgency.

Following a series of rail accidents in the past year across North America, fire chiefs and emergency management officials have testified in Washington that departments simply don’t have enough resources to confront a massive fire from oil trains.

Rick Edinger, vice chairman of the hazardous materials committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said that most departments can respond to a fire from a 9,000-gallon gasoline tanker. But a 120-car crude oil train can carry more than 3 million gallons.

“The game changer for us is the sheer amount that’s coming through the communities,” he said.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that contains $2 million for firefighter training. The railroad industry has committed $5 million to train 1,500 first responders at its testing facility in Pueblo, Colo.

But many fire chiefs say that’s not enough. According to the most recent figures tallied by the National Fire Protection Association, 71 percent of the roughly 30,000 fire departments across the country are volunteer.

Volunteer firefighters often have obligations that make it difficult for them to take the time off to travel for training, even if someone else pays their expenses. It’s also becoming hard for volunteer fire departments to retain personnel.

“Most of those people are working two jobs,” said Chuck Aughenbaugh, president of the New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs Association. “It’s going to be impossible for them to do that.”

The New York proposal would ask Congress to authorize the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy to designate the states eligible for training and equipment. State fire marshals and administrators would then designate local fire departments that would receive the training and equipment.

The plan also proposes an accelerated time line for implementation. Foam and equipment stations would be in place within 60 days. Testing to determine which kind of foam would work best would be finished in 30 days. Eligible states would receive funding to begin training within 60 days.

Representatives from industry associations representing railroads, oil producers and refiners declined to comment on the New York proposal until they had a chance to review it.

Aughenbaugh said his organization supports the plan “100 percent.” However, he wondered if $100 million would be enough.

“A penny doesn’t go that far anymore,” he said.

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