Multiple agencies prepared to respond if train derailment disaster hits South Mississippi

First responders are constantly training for the worst case scenario.
Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 7:02 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - It’s not a matter of if a train derailment will happen; it’s a matter of when. That’s the mentality first responders have toward the possibility of that kind of disaster happening in South Mississippi.

“We have a lot of train traffic that runs through the Coast,” said Harrison County Emergency Management Deputy Director Rob Dambrino. “If there is a train derailment, it could pose a real big safety concern.”

The train derailment that happened on Feb. 2 in East Palestine, Ohio is a reminder of why emergency responders take training so seriously.

“Downtown Gulfport is a highly populated area. A train derailment is not only a threat to the population but also the property, businesses and the impact to the commercial district is a huge concern,” he said.

A wide range of chemicals are transported by rail on a daily bases. Response to a derailment of one of those trains cannot be handled by a single agency. It requires all hands on decks from multiple departments.

“It takes a lot of people to control it,” said Chief Pat Sullivan of Harrison County Fire Rescue. “The cooperation we have on the Coast is second to none. All of us respond to back each other up, and all of us are on the same page when it comes to public safety.”

The deadliest factors associated with train derailments are chemical spills, fires and explosions. Multiple departments must constantly train and be in agreement on a plan if disaster strikes. Some of that training starts before a first responder gets a job.

“We do a whole lot of training. Before you become a firefighter, there is a two-week course,” said district chief Ian Barna of Gulfport Fire Department. “We have an in-house academy so we teach our own right here. Then, we do countless hours of training per year just to keep our certifications.”

So, what is the course of action when a train goes off the rails?

“One of the first things we do is try to keep everybody safe,” Sullivan said. “The two things we are concerned with is the citizens, we need to get them away from the derailment, and evacuate the immediate area. And the first responders need to be safe.”

These types of potentially deadly situations require involvement beyond a local level. State and federal agencies are also on hand and are well prepared to handle containment and clean-up.

“Train derailments are very complex,” said Nicholas Hatten, the State On-Scene Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. “One of the things you want to establish is typography. What is spilling and where is it going? What is the wind direction? What are these key factors that we need to know to keep the public safe.”

Then, he said it’s all about mitigating the potentially harmful effects of a chemical spill.

“One of the things you must do is build dams, build dykes, build something that will keep the chemicals there from migrating off-site,” Hatten said. “You want to lessen the impact to the environment, you want to protect the health and life, and the safety of property.”

Want more WLOX news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.