Disaster Zone

An 'Aha' from the Oil Train Safety Symposium

I'm still trying to learn what works and what doesn't.

by Eric Holdeman / May 1, 2016

Just this past Thursday, my organization, The Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR) in collaboration with our Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Transportation Committee, and with support from the Washington Legislature's Rail Caucus hosted a one-day Oil Train Safety Symposium attended by 196 people. The event drew representatives from a multitude of jurisdictions and disciplines: railroads, ports, emergency management, legislators from multiple states, Canadian officials, federal agencies like the National Weather Service and the Department of Homeland Security. It was a "home run" type of event with good media coverage from multiple media outlets. The agenda for the day is here. The "aha" that I alluded to came from the last panel discussion. The panelists were made up of elected officials from both parties and with different perspectives on how to govern. They were each asked to react to what they heard during the course of the day. Then it was opened up to questions from the audience. I asked this one, "Emergency managers are always working to get the attention of elected officials to the many hazards that exist in a community and what needs to be done to address those issues. Why is it that this issue of oil trains has garnered so much attention from elected officials at the federal, state and local levels?"

Now I can tell you that I'm thinking it was the Quebec incident with the huge explosion, destruction of a downtown area and unfortunate deaths that caught everyone's attention. It certainly was the event that galvanized my looking into the issue. But, this is what they said, "It is the environmental aspect of the issue that has involved so many people. It comes from the sourcing of the oil via fracking, the transportation going through so many communities along rail routes, people concerned about climate change and more carbon, etc." They did not mention Quebec!

This then is my "Aha." We are thinking about issues from a life safety and property destruction perspective and what concerns us every day. People easily compartmentalize risk and some dreaded disaster in the future (I call this submarine warfare — can't see it, don't worry about it) does not concern them. The other thing about oil trains is the optics of them rolling in 100-car trains through communities. There are weekly and even some places daily reminders of the hazard — from different perspectives.

We need to look at issues/risks from a bigger perspective and use "other factors" that have a public and therefore a legislative interest in our communities. People don't worry that much about disasters, but we can have the "worried well" concerned about other issues that can feed into our approaches to getting attention to things that people normally would not think about.