The East Palestine train derailment exposes challenges for volunteer fire departments

Keith Drabick, East Palestine’s fire chief, says a solution in the future for volunteer firefighters is paid time off allotted specifically for training, similar to what the national guard does. 

When a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3, the village’s volunteer fire department was the first to respond. 

Three days later, East Palestine fire chief Keith Drabick — along with the hazmat team and the Ohio EPA — decided to burn the vinyl chloride the train had been carrying to avoid risk of explosion and further contamination. A large plume of thick black smoke rose high over the village, the result of the decision to burn the chemicals instead of risking a potentially catastrophic explosion. 

The derailment revealed the challenges volunteer departments like East Palestine face in crisis situations. Drabick explained that while his department handled the situation as well as they could, he would like to see more opportunities for specialized training for departments like his. 

“For what we had available to us at the time, I think we were prepared the best that we could be,” he explained. “I go back to the training, there's always more training that needs to be done.There's always more classes that need to occur. However, again, it comes down to funding and availability.”

Cleveland firefighters examines a simulated train car leak during Norfolk Southern's train training in October.  

Tight budgets make training volunteers difficult

According to the village’s 2022 annual report, East Palestine received nearly $88,000 in funding for its fire department for the entire year. This includes fuel, salaries, and training, limiting the amount the department is able to spend on specialized training. 

About 70% of Ohio residents rely on volunteer fire departments, according to the Ohio Task Force on Volunteer Fire Service. Scott Skeldon, the former president of the Ohio State Firefighters Association from 2021 to 2023, said throughout his career, he has dealt with strict budgets and struggles to get specialized training for volunteer departments.   

With more funding, paid departments “have their additional training,” Skeldon said. “Some of them have their own training academies.”

Drabick said finding time for specialized training, which often happens in another city, while having a full-time job can be difficult. He’d like to see volunteer firefighters get paid time off from their jobs for training, similar to what the National Guard does. 

“A lot of them will utilize their vacation time from their primary job to [train]. So therefore, they don't get to take the family on vacation, or they don't get to spend that time with their family,” Drabick said. “That becomes a problem that kind of deters people from going to those training classes.” 

Deputy James Allen and Chief Dave Nangle walk on the road where the Springfield derailment happened 10 months later. During the derailment, a rail car knocked down a power line, electrifying the tracks.

More safety tools and training available for larger fire departments

According to the Federal Railroad Association, there are about three train derailments a day in the United States. Springfield and Ravenna Township also responded to train derailments in the past year. But those larger fire departments had tools and training available to them that were not available to East Palestine’s department.

In October 2022 a Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks in Ravenna Township. The township’s firefighters are paid, and it had a budget of around $900,000 for fire and EMS in 2022. 

Ravenna Township also had access to the Ask Rail app — an app specifically for firefighters that shows them what’s on each train car.  

Mark Kozak, who was Ravenna Township’s fire chief at the time of the derailment, said his team initially thought hazardous material had spilled. But after consulting Ask Rail, they realized it was just rock salt. 

“We were able to pull up that train on the app and start looking at where the cars were. And then also give us the emergency numbers to Norfolk Southern to call,” Kozak said. 

Drabick testified during National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative hearings in June that East Palestine’s fire department did not have access to the Ask Rail app during the February derailment. Unlike the Ravenna Township derailment, East Palestine’s emergency response team was delayed in identifying what exactly was in the cars. 

Deputy James Allen stands in front of the site of the Springfield derailment seven months later. 

Larger departments can build more relationships

In March, 28 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield. The fire officials quickly confirmed that there were no casualties and nothing had spilled, but the main concern was a live power line that was knocked down.

Springfield deputy James Allen and chief Dave Nangle say communication with other nearby fire departments, Springfield police and the hazmat team was their most valuable resource — first to determine that there was no chemical spills, then to keep everyone off the tracks. 

 “It's better that you all come together when there's not an emergency. So that we know each other's faces and what our priorities are for when we have the incident,” he said. 

The Springfield fire department is much larger than either East Palestine’s or Ravenna Township’s, with a budget of around $14 million in 2022. 

Allen and Nagle said they’d encourage other firefighters to  train alongside other emergency management departments, so that when an emergency does happen, everyone is already familiar with each other. 

Norfolk Southern offers a mock train derailment training, where they provide a train car for first responders and simulate situations such as chemicals leaking and cars overheating. This “train training” makes 12 to 15 stops a year in the 22 states Norfolk Southern operates, according to the company. 

East Palestine fire chief Keith Drabick, along with the Ravenna Township and Springfield chiefs, say railroads like Norfolk Southern have a responsibility to ensure that every department has the training it needs to be prepared, regardless of size. 

“Should there be more training provided by them? Absolutely. 100%, you can never have enough training. You know, but again, they have constraints much like everybody else,” Drabick said. “But if they're going to be coming through your town, they should be providing training.”
This story comes from the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University in partnership with Ideastream and is funded by The Center for Rural Strategies and Grist.

Published on Ideastream Public Media 
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