Champaign, Ill (WAND) – Railroad tankers carrying flammable ethanol and oil rumble across railroad tracks throughout Illinois. They frequently move through populated areas passing schools, churches and downtown areas of villages, towns and cities.
On a recent sunny morning, with temperatures hovering around 5 degrees, firefighters gathered at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) in Champaign to practice fighting tanker fires. Although derailments are statistically rare, fire departments want to be prepared in case a tanker were to catch fire requiring immediate action.
“We ship cars 99.998% of the time with no issues,” Norfolk Southern Hazmat Compliance Officer Cris Burch told WAND I-TEAM reporter Doug Wolfe on the importance of having local fire departments properly trained. “We can’t be at every single call within minutes. It may take us hours.”
Fighting rail tanker fires goes far beyond the process of fighting house, building or structure fires. Mark Clapp, an IFSI instructor and Urbana Fire Department Lieutenant, says fighting tanker fires is almost a science.
“There’s actually some physics and technique in everything that needs to go with this,” Clapp said of training instructions. “How we keep the vessel cool enough so it doesn’t want to change the metal and shift maybe potentially open up.”
“We’re cooling the tanks first before you put the fire out,” Burch stated. “We’ve got to get tanks to a controllable temperature in order for the fire to go out. So, there’s lines, markings, there’s things we can do to read the tank to know that it’s cool enough. Now we can go and attack the fire.”
The railroad industry is also moving to produce safer-stronger rail cars. In recent years model DOT-111 tank cars have been criticized for easily breaking open and igniting its contents in a derailment. The industry is facing a May 2023 deadline to phase out the DOT-111 and replace it with stronger models such as the DOT-117.
“They’ve beefed up the tank cars. So, they’ve taken a tank car, they put another couple inches of steel on it. Shields on it. They’ve done things to make these things safer,” Burch said.
Small rural and volunteer fire protection districts are not the only departments training to fight tanker fires. With ADM producing large quantities of ethanol, the Decatur Fire Department has also trained to fight rail tankers fires.
“We just went through a week-long class with all of the shifts in Decatur in their fire station,” Burch said. “Did a railroading 101. We’re going to send a few of their guys to our class in Pueblo this year in 2019 and we’ll continue training with Decatur as well.”
The Illinois Fire Service Institute is one of the few locations in the U.S. that still uses live-fire structural burn training. IFSI sits on a 28-acre campus in Champaign.