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Norfolk Southern offers safety training for first responders after East Palestine train derailment

Firefighters walk on Norfolk Southern's safety train.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Firefighters walk on Norfolk Southern's safety train on March 21, 2023.

First responders from across the state have begun getting specific training on how to respond to train derailments. Calls for Norfolk Southern to offer this training came after the derailment in East Palestine last month.

“The problem is is if you start blowing in a bunch of water because there’s a fire it can leak out underneath the locomotive, and what, are you going to put a fire underneath? 5,000-gallon fuel tank. Not a good look," a trainer said, pointing toward the Norfolk Southern safety train on a windy spring day.

A trainer speaks to a crowd of first responders in front of the Norfolk Southern safety train.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
First responders learned about the different parts of a train and how to respond to accidents at a Norfolk Southern training event on March 21, 2023.

Firefighters trained on a mobile safety train at a Norfolk Southern railyard in Bellevue in North Central Ohio.

"We've got a tank car. We've got a flat car, the locomotive and also another classroom out here, so everything you see behind me is real, obviously you can see it," Norfolk Southern Senior Communications Manager Connor Spielmaker said. "But it travels our network. It's a real train it moves."

The training helps first responders understand how to respond in the event of a train derailment in their community.

"These firefighters typically don't have a train in their backyard to go train on," Spielmaker said. "That's why it's the safety training on the safety train, so by bringing that around the network it gives that hands on experience, it gives them up close - I mean a lot of folks they don't get this close to a train just in general. And so if you've never been this close you don't know what to expect. That's what we want to get at with the training."

The Norfolk Southern safety train
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
First responders trained on the Norfolk Southern safety train on March 21, 2023.

Norfolk Southern plans to train about 350 first responders in the next two weeks, Spielmaker said. Then, the safety train gets moving.

“This actually travels our network all throughout the year," Spielmaker said. "This year we have 12 stops, a number of them in Ohio, that provides that hands on training for first responders through the communities we operate in.”

Norfolk Southern said it’s committed to creating a permanent training facility in Ohio.

“Railroad incidents are so rare, but we want to make sure we have something that we can offer first responders," Spielmaker said. "So they have some of that hands on experience, so they have some of that muscle memory if ever they were to respond to one.”

Firefighters examine the Norfolk Southern safety train.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Firefighters examine the Norfolk Southern safety train at a training session on March 21, 2023.

Firefighters at the training event were grateful to get the hands on experience.

"We've got trains going through our town quite a bit, probably 70 some a day, so just always trying to increase our knowledge of what's going on and everything," Kevin Niemeyer, a firefighter with Hamler Volunteer Fire Department, said.

Many said they've previously taken train safety courses.

"This definitely adds to it and makes us better prepared," Barry Sauber, a firefighter with Findlay Fire department, said.

Aside from the safety train, Norfolk Southern offers other modes of support to fire departments.

"We work with the first responders on the phone to help them understand the types of things that may come through their community," Spielmaker said, "so they can build an action plan that makes sense and will work and will be relevant if there ever were to be an incident."

Norfolk Southern is expanding the safety train program and will continue to make adjustments as more information about the East Palestine derailment is made available, Spielmaker said.

"We continue to work with the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] and the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] to identify what we can do to become an even safer railroad," Spielmaker said.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.