Just How Likely is Train Derailment Scenario Tested by CHHS All Hazards Exercise?

July 5th, 2013

CHHS Research Assistant Christine Diana also contributed to this blog.

Rail travel remains one of the most widely used modes of transportation in the United States.  Thousands of people use trains to commute to work each day, for vacation and business trips, and many companies use freight trains to carry cargo across the country. The frequent use of the railway system may lead to periodic accidents that can be catastrophic in nature. In order to best prepare local areas for train-related incidents, CHHS planned, conducted, and evaluated two operations based exercises to test local and regional response capabilities.

One of the exercises held June 20, 2013, an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) functional drill, tested Montgomery County’s ability to activate emergency response plans, allocate resources and effectively manage the incident. An additional full scale exercise was conducted the same day with ten hospitals in Maryland’s designated Region V. Region V comprises Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s Counties.  Both exercises were based on a fictional train derailment in downtown Rockville, Maryland.

A train derailment scenario is especially relevant today when conducting exercises for first responders and hospitals because there are thousands of train accidents annually in the United States.  According to the Federal Railroad Administration – Office of Safety Analysis, from January to April of this year, there have been 3,432 train accidents. Of those incidents, there were 243 fatalities. Many of these derailments required an immediate response from fire/rescue and law enforcement personnel, as well as local area hospitals. 

Merely a month prior to the exercises, there was a freight train accident in Rosedale, Maryland. The train collision caused fifteen of the train cars to derail. The seventh train car involved in the accident was carrying Sodium Chlorate, which is considered to be a toxic substance. The ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth train cars were carrying Terepathic Acid. The release of the toxic substance at the derailment site caused an explosion as well as a fire, further complicating emergency operations. A hazmat team responded to the accident scene and determined if an evacuation of the surrounding area was necessary and the impacts of the released chemical on the community. The functional exercise at the Montgomery County EOC, which CHHS had begun developing well before the Rosedale derailment, paralleled much of the activity of the real world incident. During the exercise, resources were requested through the EOC and the incident scene was effectively managed.

Another real world incident involving a train derailment occurred in May 2013 near Fairfield, Connecticut during which two Metro North commuter trains collided. Sixty people were wounded, five of whom were critically injured. Victims were taken to both St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut as well as Bridgeport Hospital for triage and treatment. Though this incident did not contain hazardous materials, similar treatment and triage of victims was conducted in the Region V full scale exercise. The exercise developed by CHHS also provided the opportunity for hospitals to test various protocols to ensure a timely response to a real world emergency. During the exercise, mock patients were assigned to the ten participating hospitals with varying levels of injuries. To further enhance hospital emergency response plans, some of the mock patients were exposed to an unknown chemical, requiring some of the hospitals to set up decontamination tents and test their decontamination protocols.

These real world examples of train derailments in the last several months highlight the need to take an all hazards approach when planning for emergencies and when conducting exercises for first responders. These incidents are just a small snapshot into the thousands of rail accidents that have occurred thus far in 2013. By continuing to train and exercise using a variety of scenarios, first responders and hospitals can increase preparedness and respond more efficiently during real world emergencies.



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