Marin County, Calif., Responders Preparing for Rail Transit Disaster

A real emergency could be much more catastrophic than the drill Thursday, where about 20 fire crew members pretended to be injured passengers. A two-car train can hold about 300 and a three-car train about 500 passengers.

by Will Houston, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. / December 6, 2019

(TNS) — It was truly a worst-case scenario on the SMART rails Thursday morning.

Breaking down in the Cal Park Hill Tunnel on the last stretch into Larkspur, a two-car train caught fire, injuring and trapping about 20 passengers as thick smoke filled the dark 1,200-foot-long tunnel.

Fortunately for the passengers and SMART, which is about to hold a grand opening of the new Larkspur station next week, the smoke was made of sugar water, the wounded passengers were actors wearing fake blood and the fire was nonexistent.

But the many Marin County firefighters, police officers, paramedics and SMART officials at the scene treated it as a real mass casualty event to better prepare them for a day when they could face the real thing.

“Much like San Francisco PD versus Central Marin PD, everybody does things a little different,” said SMART police Chief Jennifer McGill. “So it’s really good that we have all these different agencies come in and train together so in the event something does happen in reality, it’s not the first time they are all meeting.”

The mass casualty drill on Thursday was the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s second since 2017. The drills are mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration every two years. SMART planned the second drill to occur just before the new Larkspur extension opens, now set for Dec. 14. FRA and Department of Homeland Security officials observed the training on Thursday.

Marin County fire Battalion Chief Graham Groneman said the Larkspur extension presented a unique opportunity to test the agencies’ mass casualty response protocols under a new scenario. These drills are typically performed yearly by the various emergency agencies under a variety of scenarios, whether it be in the mountains or on the bay waters or a mass shooting.

“There are resources that are here that don’t have the actual train go through their primary response areas, but the lessons that they take away are the same,” Groneman said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s a train or a ferry or a bus; the way we deal with multiple patients is the same.”

Agencies attending Thursday’s drill included Marin County fire, San Rafael fire, Central Marin fire, Southern Marin fire, Kentfield fire and the San Rafael Police Department to name a few. While these agencies may have different insignia on the side of their fire engines and vehicles, Groneman said the response protocols are uniform so that the injured can be rescued and treated as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

The train drill on Thursday presented new obstacles. The train doorways, for instance, are about four feet above the ground when not parked at stations, creating a challenge for responders trying to safely extract the injured passengers on stretchers. Fire and police personnel were able to inspect the train and track on Wednesday to familiarize themselves with them as well as the new rail extension, McGill said.

To complicate the situation further, the tunnel and the smoke greatly decreased visibility, requiring firefighters to wear masks. The tunnel does have sprinklers inside that would help mitigate a fire, but the drill acted as if those were disabled, requiring firefighters lug hoses from their engines parked on the nearby bike path.

“For today’s drill, what we’re doing is we’re going to make it as difficult as possible to give them the worst possible scenario and have to lay their own lines,” said Central Marin fire Battalion Chief Matt Cobb, who coordinated the drill.

A real emergency could be much more catastrophic than the scenario on Thursday, where just 20 or so Marin County Fire Tamalpais Fire Crew members pretended to be injured passengers. In reality, a two-car train can hold up to about 300 and a three-car train about 500 passengers, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said.

Outside of the chaos of the smoky tunnel was the more organized and systematic part of the operation. The wounded were brought out and triaged, with different color markers indicating how quickly they would need to be brought to local hospitals. Those who could walk, dubbed the “walking wounded,” were green, those with more serious injuries were yellow and the most critically injured were given the red color. Medical and transportation communication directors holding clipboards worked to document the patients, coordinate the ambulances and ensure local hospitals would be able to take the injured passengers as they arrived.

Each passenger also needed to be tracked from the time they are rescued from the train to the time they get to the hospital, Groneman said. This is not only to ensure that the injured actually make it to the hospital, but also to account for who was on the train should it turn out the fire was nefarious in nature.

Under the mass casualty protocols, the first responders to arrive will be the ones to determine how many more engines and paramedics will be needed. In that way, Groneman said it’s critical that engines be staffed and prepared for any scenario, whether it be a routine medical call or a derailed train.

“When you have these critical incidents, it’s essential we have the bodies on the fire engines to make the most difference in these types of situations,” he said.

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©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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