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Departments : Think It Through

Train Wreck

A passenger train collides with a truck stuck on the railroad tracks. How do you respond?

December 28, 2015  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

In every call for service, you should think things through before you begin your response. Each call can be broken down into three phases: pre-response, response, and post-response. The following scenario is designed to help you think things through rather than give you a specific way to handle the call.


An escorted 82-ton jet gas turbine motor is being transported by truck through a small, lightly populated area of your jurisdiction. It is supposed to be delivered to the power company in the next city over. It has successfully made nine other railroad crossings before getting to yours. The entire length of the rig is 184 feet consisting of a truck-tractor and modular transporter: three pieces hooked together with the load in the middle piece. The downward grade of the crossing causes the middle section of the transport rig to bottom out and get stuck on the train tracks.

After 15 minutes of work to free the stuck transport, an eight-car commuter train carrying 90 people rounds the bend and slams into the turbine, derailing four of the eight cars. The turbine is separated from the transport and lands 100 yards away. There are at least 60 people injured. You are the only supervisor available that day.

Initial Thoughts

You know from experience that any plan is better than no plan at all. You fall back on your training and stick to the basics. You need to get officers going, advise emergency medical services (EMS), and have dispatch put out the information to your surrounding agencies; you can't do it alone. The first hour is going to be filled with good intentions but very chaotic. Communication and coordination are the only goals at this point.


Think It Through Questions

  • What should I do first?
  • How do I manage the injured?
  • How do I lock down the area?
  • How do I coordinate what will be a multi-agency response?

Step back, focus, and use response to a bad traffic crash as your model. The only difference is scale; your objectives and priorities remain the same. You have two immediate priorities: Get help to the injured and secure the scene. That means traffic control, clearing routes for ambulances, finding landing zones for helicopters, and applying first aid until you are relieved by EMS. It also means setting up a command post and at least one staging area. You need people on hand, so you have to pull in everyone you can unless they are already handling in-progress calls. Look for any officers working off-duty jobs as well. All calls that are not life-and-death situations must hold until you get a handle on this one.


Think It Through Questions

  • What's the best place for the command post?
  • What's my closest landing zone?
  • How can I create a safe in and out route for ambulances?
  • How do I coordinate all the different agencies that are coming?

Keep your initial decisions simple and make them work for you, as they will set the tone for the rest of the operation. Once things are set in motion, they are very hard to change. You send your closest units to the area to handle first aid and assign one person to report back to you with an initial assessment. You also task that person with finding you an area for a command post, which for the time being will be where you can park your car.

Establishing command and control is a must. The longer you let this situation go without forming some type of command structure, the longer it will remain chaotic and continue to place people's lives in danger. You also need to find a way to communicate with all the players.

You advise EMS to send a command person to meet with you and start your joint command. As more officers arrive, you start dividing them up between first aid and site security duties. You establish a safe route for ambulances and get at least one helicopter landing zone working. Depending on how you train with your surrounding agencies, you either go into full Incident Command System (ICS) mode or continue to at least apply its principles. You need to secure a radio channel that you can all use. If this is not possible, you need to make sure there is at least one person with a radio from each major responding agency at your command post so you can talk to each other.

Next, you establish a staging area for responding units and send them out as needed. Failure to gain control of responding units will only add to the chaos. As EMS gets there, you effect a transition by replacing your resources with theirs. The key is to have the right combination and distribution of labor. Cops do cop things and EMS does theirs.

One of your most important objectives is to stabilize the scene as soon as possible. Once that happens, your resources will have an easier time doing their assignments. That doesn't mean it has to be pretty. It just means getting to the point where you are controlling the scene instead of it controlling you. Once you work past initial concerns and short-term goals, you start expanding to your long-term goals.

Long-term goals include securing the area and treating it as a crime scene for the National Transportation Safety Board. You have to plan for scene security and traffic control as they clean up and recover all the derailed train cars. You have to make sure it's safe for the people that live near the area. This is going to be a long-term operation and you have to keep thinking in terms of the big picture.


Think It Through Questions

  • When do we compare our policy and procedures with what actually happened?
  • How do we meet up with all the responding agencies for debriefing?
  • Who will put the lessons learned report together?
  • Who gets to write the after-action report for the joint command?

The post-response almost becomes as chaotic as the call itself. People tend to walk away from the paperwork and avoid talking about lessons learned. You must find a way to get representatives of all the responding agencies together for a debriefing so that a detailed after-action report can be written and a lessons learned attachment be created in order to be shared. This isn't about finger pointing, but a realistic assessment of what could have been done better.

Final Thoughts

There is no way I can possibly cover everything needed in this scenario, so I highlighted a few key areas. This article is based in part on an incident that involved my agency in Osceola County, FL, on Nov. 30, 1993. Keep in mind this was way before ICS had crossed over our way and incidents like this were still very much a fly by the seat of your pants type of thing. You can read the entire national Transportation Safety Board report here:

One of the things that becomes clear after reading this report is how important every planning detail is. Things have to be confirmed and re-confirmed. There can be no assumptions. Miss something that seems minor (or take short-cuts) and it could spell disaster. There are always multiple possibilities and potential responses. Thinking it through now saves you time later.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office. He has over 29 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and holds a Master of Political Science from the University of Central Florida.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Cliff @ 1/25/2016 9:03 AM

The first point is that this was completely preventable. The railroad could have been notified of the unusual move ahead of time. Even if this was not done, the 15 minutes they were trying to get it unstuck is plenty of time to have notified the railroad. Every crossing in the United States has an 800 number posted at the crossing along with a unique DOT number to identify the crossing. Whoever was "escorting" this load should have immediately called the railroad and they could have stopped rail traffic. If the escort was not law enforcement, they should have immediately called 9-1-1 so the local agency could have notified the railroad. In addition, as soon as it was stuck on the track, Officers could have been sent out 1-1 1/2 miles to signal the train to stop. This is the distance a train will need to get stopped clear of an obstruction. More information is available on the "Operation Lifesaver" rail safety website "". As their motto goes, See Tracks. Think Train!

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