H.R. 4397 – The Rail Safety Act

A few days ago I came across a notice of the introduction of HR 4397, aka the Rail Safety Act.  Text of the bill can be found here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr4397/text.  This bill was introduced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and had been assigned to House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on January 28th.  The essence of the bill… “To direct the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide for caches of emergency response equipment to be used in the event of an accident involving rail tank cars transporting hazardous material, crude oil, or flammable liquids.”

If you follow the link provided above, you will get the full text of the bill, which honestly doesn’t tell much more.  I’m rather ambivalent about things like this.  We have a history of pre-positioning equipment and supplies for a variety of disasters.  Organizations such as the American Red Cross function this way, as do various agencies of the US federal government.  In 1999 the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile (NPS) was expanded to preposition medical supplies around the nation as a preparedness effort for a biological or chemical attack.  This program expanded in 2003 and became the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS).  In 2006, FEMA/DHS developed a program to pre-position disaster supplies (mostly mass care types of supplies) in certain disaster prone areas around the nation.  While we also have a variety of specialized teams, that’s a slightly different matter.

One key struggle of prepositioning supplies and equipment largely boils down to who will be responsible for them.  Supplies and equipment need to be secured and maintained.  This requires some regularity of check in to ensure they are ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.  Each location needs a deployment plan, identifying how these assets will be deployed.  As part of this planning, there must be a trigger mechanism for requesting these supplies.  The supplies must deploy and reach their destination in such a time frame to be effective.  Of course upon arrival of the cache, responders must be familiar with what is there, take time to unpack it and inspect it, and be readily able to use it (therefore they must be pre-trained in the use of the equipment).  So who will be responsible for these caches?  State governments?  Local governments?  Rail carriers?  First responders?

Hazardous materials response is one of the most highly regulated aspects of public safety.  It is governed in the US by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) regulation 1910.120.  There is a strong emphasis on preparedness and protocol.  Only individuals trained to certain levels can conduct certain actions in a hazardous materials response.  Most responders, due to the fairly low ranking hazard of a major hazardous material release in their jurisdiction, do not have the degree of training needed to utilize some of what I expect would be in a cache of supplies as ordered by the Rail Safety Act.  That said, every jurisdiction in the US has access to a hazardous materials team – either from a nearby jurisdiction or from the state.  These teams have the specialized training and equipment needed to address a hazmat incident.  Now that we’ve gotten to that, what, exactly, is the need that the Rail Safety Act is addressing?

Sure, these caches of supplies may provide more of whatever is needed, but there are a few issues here.  First of all, it will take people to examine what is being delivered, to unpack it, and to ready it for deployment.  Often, the biggest issue on a response such as this is a lack of trained personnel.  Second, will the materials being provided by the cache be interoperable with what the hazmat team is using?  While we have gotten better at standardizing equipment, there are still many issues out there.  Tab A requires Slot A.  Slot B simply won’t work.

I suppose what I’m really interested in here is a definition of need.  Has there been any type of needs assessment or feasibility study conducted for this?  I’m doubtful.  Most bills are generally introduced at a whim by well-intentioned but ill-informed politicians.  The last thing we need is another requirement to work within that does us little good – even if it is to be funded by the rail carriers.

I’m curious if anyone out there happens to know about this bill or any need supporting it.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

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