What if it was more than just coal?
By By Connie Nowlin Managing editor
When a CSX train derailed east of Atmore Nov. 30, 29 of its cars spilled their load of coal dust.
It made a spectacular mess, and clean up is still under way.
But it also made a lot of people ask some very unsettling questions, like what if it had been a train carrying chemicals, or an Amtrak train loaded with passengers?
Who would respond? What is each responding agency's responsibility? And are they prepared to handle those responsibilities?
"We were very lucky," said David Jennings, director of emergency management in Escambia County.
Jennings said that a lot of what he called 'bombs' – that is, very combustible cargo – are transported through the county daily, both on the railroad and on the interstate.
"Emergency management can't prevent accidents," Jennings said.
"But we can make sure the first responders have the training and equipment to keep loss of life and property to a minimum."
But the problem is that not enough first responders – primarily firefighters – are trained in handling hazardous materials.
Jennings said of 420 firefighters in the county, both paid and volunteer, about 20 or 25 are trained to handle hazardous materials.
The training can be time consuming and expensive, but Escambia County has something of a secret weapon in the fight to keep residents safe.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians is able to provide training to first responders at no cost.
Plans are in place for that training to be offered early in 2004.
Firefighters will have to arrange travel to the reservation themselves in addition to working their full time jobs, if they are volunteers.
Jennings said the wreck had little to do with the plans for training.
"I started (as director) Sept. 9, and I began working on it right away. I am open to any suggestions to help make the training accessible."
Jennings would like to see three times the number of first responders trained to handle hazardous materials.
"If we had 70-80 trained to hazardous material technician levels, it would make response possible until backup arrives," from Mobile, Jennings said.
"But I believe in our first responders. They are special people and they will take advantage of the training."
That training will help in the event of a chemical spill, but what if the train was full of passengers that sustain serious injuries or fatalities?
Atmore Community Hospital has in place a disaster plan that begins with an administrator calling a disaster code. That happens when there are five patients in a single incident, said Willene Beck, administrative assistant at the hospital.
"The code has been in place for more than 20 years," Beck said. It was updated after 9-11.
In that code, every employee has a job defined for that position.
"All employees here know what they are supposed to do to follow our code, and we drill regularly," she said.
While that is reassuring, in the event of a serious passenger train accident, Jennings is concerned about storage of fatalities until the immediate emergency is past. He estimates that only about 60 bodies could be taken care of adequately in Atmore itself, even utilizing the hospital and all the area funeral homes.
"Right now, in a mass casualty accident, the hospital and other facilities would be overrun. Even with the best of plans, it would be chaotic," Jennings said.
"Now, here would be a true disaster."