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Fire Chief Talks Disaster Planning

By Staff | Mar 23, 2016

Photo by Miles Layton New Martinsville Fire Chief Larry Couch discusses disaster training during a recent meeting at the New Martinsville Fire Department.

NEW MARTINSVILLE – Tammy Bever of the Brooklyn area of New Martinsville attended a meeting organized by the city’s fire department to inform residents of emergency planning in the event of a disaster.

“My mom is 84-years-old, so I was scared to death for her being in Brooklyn,” Bever said Thursday at City Hall. “We’re blocked. It is scary.”

Fire Chief Larry Couch, who led the informational session, responded, “I understand that. That is a reasonable concern. That is not unreasonable at all.”

Ten rail cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas derailed in December near the Brooklyn rail yard – four of those cars were on their sides along the tracks. No gas was released and the train cars appear intact. Roads leading into the neighborhood did not need to be closed nor the area evacuated.

The Brooklyn neighborhood is bordered by railroad tracks, so that if a train stops then first responders may experience a delay attending to a situation in that part of the city.

“You can call them (CSX) and they can get that train off the track, now?” Bever asked.

If the tracks are blocked, Couch said, CSX will move the train and has been pretty quick about doing so.

“Usually when we call them, they clear the tracks,” he said. “But, if the train is broken down or derailed, that’s a whole other subject…I understand your concern.”

Couch said if the tracks are blocked so that firefighters can’t get to their destination, the next mutual aid company, such as Paden City Volunteer Fire Department among other fire departments, will come into provide mutual aid.

Bever said she doesn’t think so much about the fire as much as a possible health emergency for her family or friends.

“I don’t think so much about a fire because your house can be replaced,” she said. “It’s medical. What if one of us has a heart attack and there is a train on tracks? That is our biggest fear being back there. It is medical more than a fire.”

Couch said if a train is unable to be moved because it has broken down or derailed, there is a strip of land in that area of the city that can be used as a landing pad for a medical helicopter. If a helicopter was unavailable, first responders would transport anyone experiencing health problems across the tracks to an ambulance, he said.

“I understand your concerns and why you expressed them in the meeting. That’s why we’re here tonight to try an alleviate those fears,” Couch said to Bever. “We will do everything in our power to get the folks out of there that need to be out of there. If there’s a medical emergency, that comes first. Life is of the highest concern.”

Couch offered a detailed protocol and plan of action from the Emergency Response Guidebook that is in place that dictates how first responders deal with a crisis. He said the city’s firefighters have more than 250 years of experience, so they are well-prepared to handle situations ranging from a house fire to a chemical leak. Couch said in the past, first responders have dealt with the flood from 2004 as well as the 2012 derecho a powerful windstorm that knocked out power across the region. Couch said there is usually one rail or truck incident that firefighters contend with each year.

There are websites such as readywv.gov and more that provides easily accessible information for citizens and emergency officials. If residents need to be evacuated, there are shelters where they can go.

A rail incident that may involve a release of toxic chemicals is a matter of concern for emergency planners.

“My big concern is if there is a chemical release there (Brooklyn),” Couch said. “How can we get you out of there? A helicopter is not going to land where there is a chemical release with good reason…We will find a way to help you.”

Couch said first responders carefully balance the need to evacuate people for their safety with unseen dangers that may evolve as residents leave their homes.

“We try to make an educated guess because when you have to evacuate people, no matter whether it is Christmas Eve or July 4th, then you put people at risk of getting hurt,” he said. “Some people get scared or maybe excited. When they get out on the roads, they could be involved in a crash. We don’t want to displace people that doesn’t need to be displaced. If we’re telling you or sending police officers out to evacuate you, it’s because you need to go.”

Couch said rail cars that carry chemicals are protected by steel casing that is at least one and half inches thick. He said most times, the chemicals contained within the train cars do not leak.

“These companies go to extreme lengths to make sure that accidents don’t happen,” Couch said. “These rail cars and trucks are built to withstand this kind of stuff. Chlorine and propane these cars are built tough.”

Speed is another factor that may make things a little safer in the city.

“When trains come through here, they are usually going pretty slow,” Couch said. “The likelihood of those tanks being ripped open is less. I wouldn’t say it won’t happen because it could, but the trains come through very slow. Other communities places where the trains are going through 45-50 miles per hour that is scary. Down through our town, the trains are usually creeping because they can only go so fast as they approach the yard. We’re very fortunate that a majority of town is not going to have to tolerate those high speeds.”

If something happens, Couch said, emergency officials do not want to cause an unnecessary alarm but respond to each situation with a cool head and a clear head.

“We want to try and keep an incident as small as it can possibly be,” he said. “We don’t want to create panic when panic doesn’t need to take place. All panic does is make our jobs worse.”