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Aerial Drone Aids in Chemical Train Derailment Response

Birds-eye technology kept emergency personnel out of harm’s way while delivering photos of accident scene.

The use of unmanned aerial drones may raise privacy and safety questions for some people, but the technology’s life-saving benefits are well worth the risk for Louisville Emergency Management Agency Director Doug Hamilton.

Faced with a chemical train derailment in the southwest area of Jefferson County, Ky., in October, Hamilton sent in an aerial drone to take photographs and observe the scene. The drone sent back valuable information that helped Hamilton evaluate the situation without risking the lives of emergency personnel who normally would have approached the area on foot.

The derailment of the Paducah & Louisville Railway train occurred in an area where the tracks were elevated on a hill, and the side where the train derailed slopes down toward the Ohio River. As a result, responders could only get to the train from one side. The drone provided Hamilton’s team with a view and focus that they wouldn’t have otherwise had in the situation.

“It helped us refine our questions when the contractors submitted their plans for moving the cars, what the risks were going to be and what the evacuation zones were going to be, where we would not have been able to do otherwise,” Hamilton said.

The drone was brought in after a fire ignited as contractors were preparing to move a rail car containing butadiene — a flammable gas that is shipped liquefied and can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and drowsiness and dizziness. Exposure to butadiene can also damage the central nervous and reproductive systems.

That car was up against another car containing hydrogen fluoride, a chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage. The fire set up a potentially explosive situation where the toxic chemicals could be released in the air. Residents were evacuated throughout the area.

Hamilton explained that when the butadiene car ignited and the flame was hitting the top of the rail car holding the hydrogen fluoride, it began to boil the latter chemical. Without keeping the temperature down, a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) could occur, which could hurl the rail car thousands of feet and vaporize the hydrogen fluoride, creating a toxic inhalation hazard.

While water at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute was being dumped on the railcar for several hours to keep it cool and avoid an explosion, Hamilton felt his team had to have a better view on what was going on.

“Ordinarily, we as a jurisdiction don’t get involved in the 'ifs', 'ands' and 'buts' of how a contractor is going to deal with a hazardous materials response and clean up,” Hamilton said. “But as a result of the fire on Wednesday [Oct. 31], there was somewhat of a jolt to our confidence and more of an awareness on our level that we needed to be exactly clear on what the contractor intended on doing.”

Responders first called in a police helicopter to take fly-over photos. But while Hamilton said the photos from it were handy, the possibility of a large explosion made using the helicopter a risky move.

At that point, Hamilton was told an aerial drone called the Datron Scout was available. Provided by Drone Systems, the drone and the company’s president Joel Embry was on-scene on Nov. 1, to control the vehicle. Able to zip in and out of the scene in 20-minute increments, the drone took photos of the area without putting the lives of responders in jeopardy.

“It’s a hell of a lot better [quality] photos than we were getting from a helicopter, which can’t be as stable as a drone is,” Hamilton said.

Mixed Results

Although the drone operated well, the deployment in this particular situation wasn’t perfect.

The initial plan was to use the drone for live video transmissions so that responders could evaluate the situation in real time. But the idea was nixed due to connectivity and compatibility issues between the drone and the incident command center.

Hamilton explained that the drone’s video operated using Apple’s QuickTime software. While that doesn’t seem too big of a hurdle, the equipment being used by emergency responders didn’t have the software. In addition, the state’s command vehicle also couldn’t connect to the video, and in the interest of time, Hamilton abandoned the idea and went with just aerial photos from the drone.

The images weren’t delivered wirelessly, however. The drone flew out to the site, took pictures and then had to fly back to where responders were located so they could download them and view the scene.

Rick Bobo, regional response manager for Region 4 of Kentucky Emergency Management — a division of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, said his goal is to make sure that the communication link between the state’s command vehicle and the drone is established for the next time the technology is used.

While Bobo wasn’t on the scene, he said state representatives tried to establish the uplink, but were lacking the proper equipment to get the drone’s video feed to function properly. But they now know what they need to make it happen and it’s just a matter of getting it completed.

Despite the video hiccup, Hamilton is fully on board with using an aerial drone during other emergency situations in the future. Because the incident lasted for 19 days, emergency personnel had plenty of time to talk about the drone and other applications where it would be valuable to use.

“If we had the drone on day one, we would have had a better appreciation initially of exactly what kind of a problem we had here,” Hamilton said. “The drone moved from down at the bottom of our grant request list to closer to the top.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.