Stalled freight train at the UP Northwest Line Metra Train Station in Arlington Heights reveals a common, highly toxic hazardous material in white tanker car (dimethyl sulfate — highly poisonous, corrosive, carcinogenic and mutagenic). The railroad lines through Aurora, Elgin and Naperville carry an even greater variety and quantity of hazardous materials.
Starting with a photograph of a tanker car with HazMat placard #1267, the Chicago Tribune has published an interesting and important article about hazardous and flammable chemicals that are transported through Aurora, Naperville, and Elgin. The article features quotes from Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner and Naperville’s Mayor-Elect Steve Chirico. The article points out that the community leaders are concerned about a major scale disaster that could occur in an accident, such as the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec railroad car fire killed 47 people and caused an estimated $2 billion in property damage in a town of only 6,000 people on July 6, 2013. An unattended 74-car freight train rolled into town and derailed, causing crude oil (Hazmat placard #1267) in rail tanker cars to burn and explode. Crude oil is a dark viscous liquid that is easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames; and can form explosive mixtures with air. Crude oil vapors are heavier than air, and can get into sewers and basements. The mayors are concerned that a disaster of greater magnitude could occur in their more densely populated communities.
WARNING GRAPHIC LANGUAGE: CBC obtained recorded telephone conversations between train engineer Tom Harding and a dispatcher from the night of the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic. The National is the flagship news and current affairs program of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s public broadcaster.
Naperville’s Mayor-Elect Steve Chirico is quoted saying, “And besides crude oil, many of the other chemicals carried on trains, like ammonia and ethanol, can be very difficult to deal with.” And he is right. A wide variety of hazardous material could result in a disaster in his community. He didn’t mention chlorine, but as an example, a derailment involving ruptured and leaking chlorine would cause a greenish, yellow gas with a pungent suffocating odor to slink along the ground. Unlike some gases that would float in a cloud, chlorine gas is heavier than air, and can seep into waterways, sewers, and basements and other confined areas. While it’s not flammable, if chlorine ends up mixing with fuels (wood, paper, oils, gasoline), it can cause massive fires and explosions. Even heat, sunlight and sparks can cause explosions. Chlorine also readily reacts with water to form harmful hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acids. Chlorine could mix with other hazardous materials or normally inert materials located near the railroad tracks (e.g., a gas station, and industrial building), or could react with leaks of other chemicals leaking from other railcars. When railcars with chlorine are involved in fires, firefighters are recommended to evacuate the area for one-half mile in all directions.
Even if chlorine didn’t ignite, the roving cloud along the ground can cause direct skin burns or frostbite from evaporative cooling. Skin damage can be severe enough to require surgical removal of damaged skin (skin debridement). Long-term inhalation of low concentrations or short-term inhalation of high concentrations has ill effects. The chlorine that forms hydrochloric acid on contact with moisture can destroy airways and lung tissue, which causes the lungs to fill with water (pulmonary edema), and causes the throat to swell and block the airway. If the lung damage doesn’t kill a person, it might cause chronic bronchitis or other chronic lung conditions for the rest of that person’s life.
In January 2005, a train derailment on the premises of a textile mill in Graniteville, South Carolina released 42 to 60 tons of chlorine gas in the middle of the small town. As a result of chlorine gas exposure, eight persons died before reaching medical care. Some of the victims that were killed managed to escape a good distance from the leak and were found in a wooded area. Others were found inside a building. Seventy-one people were hospitalized for acute health effects as a result of chlorine exposure, and one of those patients died in the hospital. Over 5000 people were forced to evacuate their homes for over two weeks while Hazmat teams decontaminated the area.
Trains with crude oil and other hazardous materials that are involved in a derailment present a dynamic unfolding disaster — and seconds count. Police would likely be the first on the scene. If police officers survived the initial encounter, they would likely describe the scene on the radio. They might be able to broadcast the Hazmat placard on their police radio. If they were too close to the burning or leaking railcar, they would likely be killed or seriously injured by the chemical exposure. The smart move for police would be to stop short of the scene of a pileup of railroad cars and inspect the wreckage using binoculars from a safe distance. Reading off the placards would be valuable information for an appropriate response. Weather conditions and potentially changing wind direction via observations or forecasts would be extremely important pieces of information. The location of fallen victims, or areas where people evacuated would also be vital information.
Ironically, the three communities concerned in the Chicago Tribune article all use secret police radio communications systems that interfere with getting messages out. Elgin police department communications are encrypted in the Starcom21 radio system from Motorola. Aurora and Naperville police departments use a proprietary radio system from Harris Corporation, known as OpenSky, which is far from open to the endangered public in a major disaster. Harris Corporation is also the same company that makes Stingray products which allow police to intercept IMSI cell phone information — and with FishHawk software can eavesdrop on supposedly private cell phone conversations. Porpoise software can monitor text messages.
The majority of police departments in the United States do not use encrypted or secret police communications for their public dispatch. Even a smaller minority use secret communication in the fire department. However, both Aurora and Naperville fire departments use secret radio communications equipment from Harris Corporation.
Much of the initial vital information in a major train disaster would not be heard by neighborhood watch groups or the media, and some important communications might not even be heard within fire departments involved with Aurora and Naperville. From local niche news groups to major news media in news choppers; none of the initial vital lifesaving information and ongoing lifesaving details would be available in a disaster in Aurora and Naperville. Police communications would be restricted in Elgin. An open state mutual aid channel, known as IFERN, would call in assistance from neighboring communities, but too long after the initial vital information was transmitted. Community leaders might claim that this channel is sufficient, but the information provided over this channel is too little, too late when seconds count. Officials might claim they have reverse 9-1-1 for effective notification, but these notices lack detail, are ineffective if people don’t have a phone with them, and alert people sequentially. Would you like to be the last person on the call list? All possibilities for communication are absolutely necessary in a major disaster.
Additionally in regard to public notification and awareness, none of the three fire departments from Aurora, Elgin, or Naperville refer to having their own official fire department Twitter or Facebook accounts on their official websites — as do many fire departments in the United States (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Sacramento). While Aurora, Elgin and Naperville have local government Twitter or Facebook accounts, those accounts won’t be very reassuring or helpful in a major disaster when disaster notices are mixed in with information about water bills, vehicle stickers, special garbage pickup days, and food festivals, etc. Since Aurora and Naperville use secret fire department communications, they especially should have a robust social media notification system via Twitter and Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are effective ways to get out messages simultaneously to the media and the public. The social media sites tend to withstand extremely high Internet traffic.
The use of encrypted radio channels has also been blamed for delays in communications internally among fire departments. In February 2015, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the D.C. fire department to stop encrypting fire radio channels after a deadly smoke incident aboard a Metro train. Encrypted radio channels with their added complexity were under “intense scrutiny” after firefighters at the scene of the trains couldn’t communicate with crews and fire supervisors above ground.
DCFD Lt. Stephen Kuhn discussed arriving to an already evacuated train station and not learning of trapped passengers until underground. He then discussed dealing with non-working radios and heavy smoke. Overall, he told WUSA9 the radio issue was one of the most crippling problems for his team.
“I think if we had known, we meaning the (fire) department, had known initially that there was a train with people trapped on the train, it would’ve brought a lot larger response right away because that’s what you need to evacuate a train right away is a lot of manpower.”
— DCFD Lt. Stephen Kuhn
The use of digital encrypted radios can cause added technical problems that block emergency communications merely because the technical complexity causes a failure, but it can also cause operational communications problems because firefighters responding from a remote community to a massive train disaster in Aurora or Naperville might not have the channel that is being used at the scene. While responding they won’t have the full awareness and may lack full preparedness for the scope of the incident.
Lack of Information Exacerbates Situations, Increases Harm
The lack of local public safety information could delay proper protection and evacuation in real time, and would compound anxiety about the disaster for hours and days after the disaster. Interfered messages could result in more fatalities, more injuries, more disability, and greater property damage. Also, if there is lack of official information, there is greater likelihood of misinformation being communicated among citizens, especially on Facebook and Twitter. The proper initial emergency reactions and aftermath operations are valid concerns about life or death issues and prolonged aftermath issues. Many people that aren’t killed by the disaster could suffer chronic lung disease with difficulty breathing, liver disease, liver cancer, and a variety of disabilities and other cancers.
What’s more important to you about public safety communications? Total secret police communications to catch gang members and burglars, or open communications that give citizens maximum information protection in a major disaster?
[ANSWER HINT: The secret police communications can be used more effectively by using limited secret/secure channels, using one-to-one direct phone communications that don’t broadcast secret radio channels on a radio’s loudspeaker, and by using text messaging devices for specific situations.]
Communities could wait a long time for safer rail tanker cars and routes. Communities should have safer public safety disaster notification now. There is no excuse for setting law enforcement encryption and security over public safety on a law dispatch radio.
See also …
Chicago Tribune Rolling pipeline raises concerns for Aurora, Naperville, Elgin leaders
CAMEO Chemicals Chlorine cameochemicals.noaa.gov/chemical/2862
CAMEO Chemicals Crude Oil cameochemicals.noaa.gov/chemical/11018
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