BIG LAKE, Minn. – Two dozen firefighters from three Minnesota volunteer departments received special safety training on Thursday from the BNSF railroad. The session was designed to familiarize the firefighters with the equipment on rail tanker cars and how to handle them in an emergency.
Derek Lampkin, BNSF Safety Instructor, demonstrated valves and hatches removed from actual trains and set up in a bay of the Big Lake Fire Department. Volunteers from Big Lake, Monticello and St. Michael attended.
"Pretend we are on top of a rail car right here," said Lampkin, pulling open a man-hole sized black hatch. "What they have is a 'man way' gasket, a soft gasket that will go here or they will have a hard gasket up top right here."
Lampkin moved to another piece of equipment, this one gray, to demonstrate the appearance of a chlorine tank car. He explained that the arrangement of valves inside the outer housing may vary since the cars are owned, mainly by shippers, not the railroad.
He said the equipment they were seeing was "old school, DOT 111" style tank cars and he mentioned that BNSF is in the process of obtaining 5,000 newer "1232" style tank cars, which are double-hulled and have more protective housing to cushion controlling valves in the event of a rollover accident.
Lampkin explained that a tank car with a leak may have a bad or missing gasket. He carefully used a dozen pieces of equipment to demonstrate how valves can be opened or closed and how conditions can be measured.
"Working on a rail car," he told the firefighters, " is like being a doctor, like working on a body or an EMT. You try to diagnose. I want to know the pressure. I want to know the temperature. I want to know what is going on inside that rail car."
Lampkin reassured his students about the extent of their responsibilities once they have stopped a leak on a rail car.
"You think you guys are done as emergency responders? I would say 'yes', because all you have to do is babysit the rail car," said Lampkin. "Even though this valve is broke, you stopped the leak and you kept the genie in the bottle. You are done. It is up to me to get this rail car transferred, get this valve replaced, get it fixed, things like that."
Firefighter Mike Valento, 28, of Big Lake, found the training educational and reassuring.
"I had not ever really been around trains, like as far as up close," Valento said. "So, when I came to actually seeing the actual ingredients of it and how they did what the safety was and that, it was actually really reassuring."
"They are concerned about the crude oil shipments," said Lampkin. "But they are concerned, in general, about what we can provide at BNSF to them for resources and response."
At the end of the training session, Big Lake Fire Chief Paul Nemes said he was convinced his department, working with others could handle a disaster like the rail/oil fire in Casselton, North Dakota last year.
"Certainly," said Nemes. "We are going to approach it about the same as they did. We are going to make our assessment. We are going to isolate the area, identify the product, set up our safe zones and see what the (chemical) migration is."
Nemes did express concern about the remoteness and inaccessibility of some areas where the tracks pass through Big Lake. "We have areas between Big Lake and Elk River that are very inaccessible," said Nemes.
"In case they ever have to go on a response," said Lampkin, "whether it is a leaking rail car or a train derailment, we want them to be aware of the hazards, identify what railroads they are working on and know how to respond to them, what resources we are going to provide on the BNSF end to assist them in that emergency."