Paulsboro derailment highlights shortcomings of volunteer fire and rescue squads
Federal, State and local officials testified that when it comes to emergencies like the Paulsboro derailment, the burden of the response largely falls on volunteers who are under-equipped to handle catastrophic events. What the NTSB heard over the course of its two-day hearing on the November 30, 2012 accident was eye-opening, said Vice-Chair, Christopher Hart.
"It has become abundantly apparent that what we are looking at is not a Paulsboro problem, but a national problem of resources and training," he stated at the hearings' conclusion.
Wednesday was the second day of testimony which is part of the NTSB investigation into the cause of the derailment as part of an assessment to recommend future preventative measures.
Volunteers shoulder heavy responsibilities
Chief Robert Royall, Chairman of Hazardous Material Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) told the NTSB that of the more than 30,000 fire departments in the United States, 70 percent are local volunteer companies.
All hazardous material response begins at the local level. From there, neighboring communities will turn to each other for mutual aid. If the situation is beyond municipal capabilities, local authorities will need to rely on county and state assets, explained Sgt. Bryan Everingham of the New Jersey State Police's Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
It is unrealistic to expect municipal emergency responders to have the capacity to deal with events like the Paulsboro derailment, but they should be able to figure out how to garner additional resources, said Gregory Cade, of the National Fire Protection Association. Part of the dilemma is being able to identify what resources are available and how to access them, he added.
Risk-based response is learned through simulations and training. The more HAZMAT training one has aids in making the proper decision in times of crisis, Royall said.
Training takes time
Today's training requirements put a huge strain on volunteer service. 62 percent of calls that fire departments respond to are now medical related, noted Cade. Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification takes four years of study. Adding other types of certification, such as HAZMAT response adds to the time and effort, Cade said.
While being able to offer four hours of service would be welcome at most volunteer organizations, it is not nearly enough time to be eligible to volunteer as a frontline firefighter, he said.
Glenn Roemmich, of Paulsboro's Office of Emergency Management, told NTSB that the median age for Paulsboro's fire department is between the ages of 40 to 50 years. Recruiting new individuals is tough, he shared. It takes 120 hours of training just to complete Firefighter Level I certification. Firefighters know that training is available in other areas of emergency response, but it is difficult to juggle the demand of extra education with intensive volunteer service in addition to a full-time job, he said. It doesn't help that training is unpaid and generally takes place during a volunteer's vacation time.
As a result, volunteer ranks are shrinking.
"Quite frankly, communities can't afford to hire career firefighters," Cade remarked, adding that more than half of today's fire departments say they respond to HAZMAT situations and do not have the proper equipment or training.