By Michael J. Rush
The emergency personnel who attended the Beyond Career Survival First Responder Conference in Seattle recently are responsible for guaranteeing the safety of our communities, but they are not alone.
Industries and businesses across Washington state also take steps to keep the communities where they operate secure by constantly improving the safety of their business practices and providing first responders with tools that can aid their response in an emergency.
Illustrative is an app that supports first responders when a rail accident occurs, developed by freight railroads partnering with the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The AskRail mobile app provides real-time information that can aid emergency personnel in determining the safest course of action for themselves and surrounding communities.
Home to some of the nation’s busiest ports, Washington’s economy is twice as reliant on exports compared to the average state — making freight rail essential to the state’s economic growth. Manufacturers, farmers and businesses from numerous other industries across the country rely on Washington’s 3,000-mile rail network to move products from inland locations to the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett.
While Washington is home to significant and growing rail traffic, it is important to note that accidents involving trains are exceptionally rare. However, the freight rail industry developed AskRail to mitigate the impact on communities when accidents do occur.
The app gives first responders real-time data about any hazardous materials a railcar may be carrying, allowing them to make faster, better-informed decisions about how to protect the surrounding communities. The data also enables first responders to keep communities safe by alerting them to the potential hazards associated with certain hazardous materials, such as crude oil and chemicals.
In addition to providing information on the hazards posed by hazardous materials, AskRail utilizes mapping technology to assess facilities that might be vulnerable to a hazardous materials release. Ask Rail also provides first responders with instant access to emergency contact information for every major Class I railroad and Amtrak, enabling railroads to directly coordinate with teams on the ground.
While preparing for disaster response is important, the rail industry understands that preventing accidents before they happen is the best way to keep people safe. A major factor in the railroads achieving the lowest accident rate in railroad history in 2016 is the $630 billion the railroads have invested in private infrastructure and technology improvements since 1980. These investments in maintenance and deployment of advanced technology have contributed to an 80 percent decrease in rail accidents over that period.
Of course, the railroads’ efforts to operate as safely as possible in Washington are in the context of the significant economic role the railroads play in Washington. The economic activity enabled by the state’s rail network accounts for 300,000 jobs — or 10 percent of the state’s total employment.
Thus, railroads play important economic and safety roles in operating throughout Washington State. The railroads will continue to emphasize efforts to improve safety while contributing economically. AskRail is just one such example.
Michael J. Rush is senior vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads.