WASHINGTON — Citing the sharp increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail, a group told Congress on Wednesday that most of the country’s fire departments lack sufficient training to respond to hazardous materials incidents.
Elizabeth Harman, assistant to the general president for training and grants at the International Association of Fire Fighters, said recent funding cuts have hurt efforts to train firefighters at the proper level and keep them updated on new hazards.
“There are significant portions of the country where first responders are not prepared for an incident involving hazardous materials,” said Harman, a certified fire service instructor.
Harman told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials that 65 percent of fire departments that respond to hazardous materials incidents have not trained all of their personnel for it.
“This is an untenable situation that must be rectified,” she said.
According to a 2011 National Fire Protection Association survey, 77 percent of departments have at least some hazardous materials response capability; the majority of those that lack it are in rural areas.
Harman said that hazardous materials incidents have become more complex and dangerous. In the past decade, railroads have begun shipping large quantities of flammable liquids, including ethanol and crude oil, creating new response challenges.
According to the railroad industry, more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil moved last year, up from fewer than 10,000 in 2008, and much of the increase originated in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota.
The volatility of Bakken oil has added another layer of hazard for emergency responders. Regulators have concluded that the lighter oil, extracted by hydraulic fracturing, is more flammable than conventional kinds.
“It’s not crude they may be accustomed to responding to,” said Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., noted that the four refineries in his northwest Washington district plan soon to receive 12 million gallons by rail every day, up “from zero gallons a day.”
Fiery derailments since last summer in Canada, Alabama and North Dakota have state and local officials wondering if they’re adequately prepared.
There are about 1 million firefighters in 26,000 departments across the country, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Harman testified that many firefighters, especially in volunteer departments, receive only the most basic level of training because it’s less expensive and takes less of their time.
However, she said firefighters trained on only the basic “awareness” level are “unqualified to do anything more than call for help.”
She said “operations” training, the next level up as defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, is more appropriate for first responders.
Under the current transportation bill, which expires Sept. 30, Congress required that firefighter training paid for by Department of Transportation grants be operations level at a minimum. But training funded by the department’s Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness program represents “a tiny fraction” of what’s needed nationally, Harman testified.
“We have a strong demand for training,” she said. “We have a wait list for classes.”
The program paid for $12.4 million in training grants to state, territorial and tribal governments last year, and $13.4 million in 2012, according to the department.
Harman said refresher training for experienced firefighters is just as important as initial training for new ones.
“Hazardous materials response training is not a one-time event,” she testified.