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Mobile App Takes the Hazmat Guesswork out of Responding to Train Emergencies

AskRail gives first responders information on what’s being transported on Class I trains.

Charles Werner remembers back to 1978 when as a new Charlottesville, Va., firefighter he came upon an incident involving a train in the heart of the city.

This train had been leaking carbon disulfide while running on the outskirts of Charlottesville and the conductor thought he’d just guide it into town and park it close to where the fire station was. Unfortunately, as the train arrived in Charlottesville, the leaking carbon disulfide caught fire from sparks from the train’s brakes.

Werner said it took 24 hours to get the leak and fire contained, and a good portion of that time was spent getting information on what exactly was leaking and what the hazards were. If that were to happen today, Werner and all other fire service personnel and other first responders could have access to the train’s contents in minutes with the AskRail mobile app.

AskRail is being used by more than 21,000 first responders in 50 states and eight Canadian provinces, who through the app get access to information on any Class I railcar, which includes Amtrak. By punching in the number of a rail car, the first responder gets access to what chemicals might be in that car and in neighboring cars on that train.

Werner, now Charlottesville Fire Chief Emeritus and member of the Association of American Railroads Public Safety Rail Advisory Committee, said that if he could have had one wish on that day back in 1978, it would have been to have had real-time access to train information. “Advance to today to the convergence of technology that has the database of information and all the train car information by individual car or the entire consist of all the Class I railroads.”

Werner said if he were to respond today to a similar incident, he’d immediately access the app, glean information about what’s on the train car, have access to GIS mapping to develop an isolation zone to protect the public by understanding what types of structures — schools, businesses, etc. — are in the area, and consult the Hazardous Material Response Guidebook.

“So I have this full view of information that really helps me make better decisions right now,” he said. “Having the exact information on what’s on the cars and what’s next to it. It’s all based on facts and is available immediately rather me trying to find a telephone number and make a call to find out what’s on a train.”

Werner worked with Railinc, a services subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, to develop the app.

“In 2014, we originally developed the app with a simple single-car look-up,” said Jerry Vaughn, director of interline services at Railinc. “The idea was you come upon a derailment and maybe you can get close enough to see a car that’s in the incident or not. That grew into, ‘I want to know what else is around that train.’”

So today’s app allows for information on the entire consist (what the train consists of — dining car, baggage car, etc.). Railinc is working on developing a plume model to go into the package as well.

Werner added that the app originally started with the International Association of Fire Chiefs but now includes law enforcement entities.

“That means that law enforcement who arrive on the scene first can get information and prevent themselves from getting into harm’s way and create some isolation before other responders get there,” he said.

“A highway patrol officer, responding alone in a remote location, can already understand what he or she is being faced with and start some first response capabilities as well as inform other first responders coming in.”