IAFF supports DOT proposal to improve rail hazmat safety

June 22 • 2023

Drone footage of the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The U.S. Department of Transportation is proposing a new requirement for real-time updates about hazmat shipments that can be accessed by first responders. The proposal, recommended by the IAFF, comes in the aftermath of the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that released hazardous materials into the community. 

“Fire fighters are often the first to show up for train derailments and hazmat incidents. It is critical that they have as much information as possible when they arrive on scene in order to best keep the public safe,” said General President Edward Kelly. 

The regulation would require railroads to provide hard and electronic copies of a list of hazmat materials being transported on trains in real time. These documents would also include the quantity and the exact location of the materials on the train.  

“When railroads transport hazardous materials, they must do so safely and responsibly,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a press release. “Our proposal would improve rail safety and help protect communities across the country by requiring railroads to maintain detailed, real-time information about trains carrying hazardous materials.”  

“On-demand access to key information about hazmat shipments coupled with proactive information sharing will enable first responders to better prepare for the risks present at the scene of an incident before they arrive on scene,” DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown said in the release. “This will improve safety for firefighters and first responders, and the communities they so courageously serve.”  

The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio was carrying vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene. But, the train wasn’t carrying enough of it to be labeled a high hazardous-materials train. This meant that rail companies did not have to report what the train was transporting. 

The railcars burned for several days, causing an intense level of response by fire fighters and other first responders. Residents within a one-mile radius were evacuated as a precaution. 

“Companies have a duty to report the hazards being carted through our towns, and communities deserve to be prepared and safe,” said Kelly. “This rule would help ensure safer responses to future incidents, protecting both citizens and rescue workers.”

The proposed rule addressing the safety issue has been submitted to the Federal Register. Once it has been reviewed, it will be made available for public comment.