Simulator prepares firefighters for the worst

Sgt. Allen Flynt (left) and driver Lantz Stewart work with the West Point Fire Department’s new rail car simulator.
Staff Writer

The public admires them as they roll across the countryside. Motorists gnash their teeth when they block a road, stalling us in traffic. And their horns and whistles become a routine part of the background noise of everyday life.

But seldom do most people actually think about what’s in those trains that criss-cross the Golden Triangle in almost every direction.

Until something like the train collision Thursday in Pickensville, Alabama, jars the public’s reality.

Local fire teams and emergency responders pay attention.

For instance, 27 cars a day carrying toxic vinyl chloride go through West Point on their way to Westlake chemicals in Aberdeen. That doesn’t count dozens of others carrying chemicals to major operations in Hamilton, West Point and Columbus and large manufacturers in the region.

In addition, dozens of tankers carrying crude oil roll through Columbus and other areas daily on their way to refineries in Mobile and other areas.

West Point firefighters have started training on new rail car simulators designed to help them seal off leaking valves in the event of a crash.

“This is one of those drills we’ll do a hundred times and hope to God we never have to use it,” West Point Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne said.

“We get a lot of chemicals through here and through this region but vinyl chloride is one of the most prevalent,” he added.

VCM, as it is known, is one of the most hazardous. It is described as “highly toxic, flammable and carcinogenic” with a significant potential to explode or catch fire under a variety of conditions.
The simulators were purchased with Local Emergency Planning Committee grants and will be available for training by the regional response team.

“Different rail cars are configured differently so we have these different training set ups to help mimic scenarios,” the chief continued, noting Columbus and Lowndes County have similar units but older.
Fortunately, rail cars are made “pretty tough” with double panels, extra walls and other safeguards to prevent leaks and fires in the event of a crash.

“The rail industry has been pretty proactive about safety. But you never know,” Wilbourne said, referring to the crash in Pickens County, Alabama, where two engines collided on the Alabama and Gulf Coast rail line. “Who’d have thought something like that might happen.”

Between 100 and 300 rail cars a day go through West Point. Even more than that go through Columbus and Lowndes County.

In case of a crash involving chemicals, one team dressed in full hazmat gear likely would inspect the valves and leave tools and a shut-off device. A second team would come behind them and handle the shut off.

“Remember, they most likely will be working in darkness, in bubble suits and air masks. It’s not like sitting here in the floor doing it,” the chief described.

In the not too distant future, drones also will be used for do the initial inspections. For now, Mississippi emergency planners hope to use Mississippi Highway Patrol experts to respond to accident scenes and fly drones for fire and rescue teams, the chief said.

“That reduces the risk to everyone, gets the information back quicker and helps us better plan an attack. But you really hope you never need it,” he stated.

The potential for a train accident is just one worry for the city. Like many towns, train tracks cross major traffic arteries. In West Point, two sets of tracks cross Highway 45 Alternate. The southern-most crossing could potentially make it almost impossible for firefighters to get to the growing residential and retail areas on the town’s southern edge, including a large Love’s Truck Stop.

To insure fire crews can access those areas in case the road is blocked, the city has built an access across the city’s airport.