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DOT Could Improve Oversight of Information Sharing to Emergency Responders

GAO recently recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) develop a process for regularly collecting information from state emergency planning agencies about their distribution of railroad-provided hazardous materials shipping information to local emergency planning entities. DOT concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

GAO found “the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) learned that some states did not provide the information about Bakken crude oil shipments to local emergency planners, as called for in [a May 2014 DOT] Emergency Order requiring notification of state emergency-planning agencies about shipments of crude oil from North Dakota and Montana where the Bakken shale deposit is located.”

Recently enacted legislation expanded the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) oversight of railroads’ actions moving forward; for example, railroads will be required to notify states of large shipments of other hazardous materials. However, FRA and PHMSA have not taken steps to understand whether the shipment information railroads are required to share with states is consistently disseminated to local emergency planners. Therefore, the extent to which DOT’s information-sharing requirements have the potential to improve local preparedness for rail accidents involving hazardous materials is unclear.”

GAO explained, “Recent rail accidents involving hazardous materials, such as crude oil, have raised questions about local emergency responders’ ability to take protective actions in the aftermath of such accidents. Along with FRA, PHMSA is responsible for ensuring the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail through issuing and enforcing railroad- and shipper-safety regulations.”

PHMSA and FRA within DOT have taken multiple actions to support emergency preparedness for rail incidents involving hazardous materials, including a PHMSA developed web-based training curriculum on how to prepare for hazardous materials incidents, and FRA determined whether railroads provided information about Bakken crude-oil shipments to states.”

GAO was asked to review efforts that enhance preparedness for hazardous materials rail accidents.

Emergency planners from most of 25 selected counties in 17 states surveyed by GAO reported training for responders and information about rail shipments of hazardous materials affect preparedness.

“Emergency planners from almost all of the selected counties reported that a majority of the emergency response personnel, such as fire fighters, who arrive first at an accident receive basic training that would enable them to take initial protective actions, including recognizing hazardous materials and calling for assistance in the event of a rail accident involving crude oil and other hazardous materials,” and that, “Emergency planners from most counties reported that training related to rail hazardous materials was useful in preparing for accidents.”

However, GAO found, some “emergency planners reported that some factors present obstacles to responders’ receiving training, such as neglecting one’s professional duties to take time off for training. Emergency planners from mostcounties reported that railroads in their jurisdictions have provided them with information about hazardous material shipments and that this information is useful in preparing for potential accidents.”

GAO said, “All seven of the largest railroads (called Class I railroads) and some of the four smaller railroads GAO surveyed reported providing training and information about hazardous materials to local emergency responders and planners in recent years. The Class I railroads reported training through a variety of means, including locally delivered training exercises or off-site at industry-recognized training centers. In addition, railroads reported providing information about hazardous material shipments to state and local emergency planners in part due to [the May 2014 DOT Emergency Order] requiring notification of state emergency-planning agencies about shipments of crude oil from North Dakota and Montana where the Bakken shale deposit is located. This information was intended to reach local emergency responders so that they could better prepare for rail accidents involving crude oil.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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