Curtis Tate Published

East Palestine First Responders Faced Communications Gap With Railroad

A burned up railroad tank car is seen behind a yellow piece of construction equipment in East Palestine, Ohio.
The cleanup continues from the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Oliver Morrison/WESA

Fire departments from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia responded to the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. At first, they didn’t have a lot of information to work with.

Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that none of the first responders on the scene had access to an app that was created by the rail industry precisely for that kind of situation.

The AskRail app was created in 2014 to help first responders amid a series of derailments and fires involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.

Ian Jeffries, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal lobbying group, said the app needs to be in more hands.

“There are a lot of first responders in this country,” he said, “and having 35,000 with the app is absolutely not sufficient, not where we need to be.”

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a member of the Commerce Committee, said the railroad also needed to improve its communication.

“They were pledging safety and funds to help train, and things of this nature,” she said, “but they still have missed the ball in terms of communications.”

The NTSB is investigating the East Palestine derailment and separately probing Norfolk Southern’s safety culture. Since the Feb. 3 derailment, other crashes have occurred in Michigan, Ohio and Alabama. 

Homendy said advance notification of hazardous materials moving through communities is key.

“Because they need to be prepared,” she said. “They need to be adequately trained, they need the right gear, and they need to have emergency response planning done in coordination with the railroads.”

Capito said a bipartisan bill to improve rail safety was likely coming in the next several months. 

Meanwhile, East Palestine first responders were among the first to enroll in a hazardous materials training class in Bellevue, Ohio, paid for by Norfolk Southern.

The training class is available to first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The first class began this week.