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Departments : Behind the Wheel

Rail Accident Sites Offer Serious Safety Hazards

Physical, chemical and biological hazards are obstacles officers often encounter at railroad accident scenes.

June 01, 1996  |  by Randall C. Resch

On Sept. 28, 1989, a fire truck from the Catlett, Calif., Fire Department was struck by an Amtrak passenger train as the truck crossed a rural railroad right-of-way while responding to a vehicle fire. The truck was totally destroyed, and two firefighters aboard were killed.

Our profession as police officers places us in that special category of first responders. We often respond to accident scenes where community members have, through stupidity or misfortune, tangled with trains or trolley systems. In all cases, the train wins. Train accidents create fatal results 30 times that of typical vehicle accidents. These accidents occur when drivers disobey warning devices and cross railroad tracks before the train enters the crossing. And suicide is a common result of crossing accidents.

In direct relation to the rising number of driver fatalities during rail accidents, Operation Lifesaver was established in 1972 with the express purpose of educating the public and assisting emergency agencies who deal with train related incidents. The message is simple-railway accidents can be reduced through the "Three Es:" Education, Engineering and Enforcement.

The common safety phrase in public awareness is "stop, look and listen." Officers can develop local programs in their communities by helping educate the public of the many dangers at railroad right-of-ways.

Engineering is the modification of systems to make crossings as safe as possible. Crossings must be upgraded when hazardous conditions arise due to increased traffic or community growth. When hazards are observed, police officers must take the time to identify, inspect and notify railroad companies by submitting written requests, or immediately contact them through police dispatch. Written reports take time to be channeled to the correct department. When hazards present noticeable danger, contact and response must be immediate.

Railroad tracks and their easements are considered private property. Unauthorized vehicles and pedestrian traffic is not allowed. Frequently, crimes such as theft, vandalism and the illegal boarding of trains will occur on rail property. Officers are urged to increase enforcement of trespassings on railroad property by enforcing state and local ordinances. Operation Lifesaver can assist your agency with the development of a specific enforcement program.

Emergency Response Requirement

Police officers are generally those first dispatched to train involved incidents. A psychological danger called "sirencide" exists when officers fall into a "rescuer" mode, forgetting about additional dangers and safety during their approach. Tunnel vision often captures first responders and they do not see the "big picture." Operation Lifesaver suggests officers responding to accident scenes should remember that:

   (1) Most trains do not run on a fixed schedule. Expect trains to approach from either direction at any time.

   (2) Don't get trapped on a crossing. Do not drive across tracks unless you will clear the tracks. Once you commit yourself to crossing, do not stop for any reason, even if you see a train coming.

   (3) Get out of your vehicle if it stalls and get clear of the tracks if a train is coming. If no train is coming, post look-outs and try to push the vehicle from the tracks.

   (4) Watch for a second train coming from either direction after the last car from a visible train has passed.

   (5) Never drive around crossing gates. Stop and wait until the crossing arms have risen and the warning lights and bells have ceased.

   (6) Never try to judge a train's speed or distance.

   (7) Be especially alert at night for highway rail crossing warning signs.

   (8) Contact your emergency dispatcher or the local railroad office if a train is blocking a crossing and you must get through.

Stopping a Train-Procedures

Officers should stop railway traffic only when its continued operation would be hazardous to persons or property. Stopping distances vary due to size, length and load of trains, and the percent of grade. Trains may require up to two miles before coming to a complete stop.

When a train must be stopped due to a stalled vehicle, if time exists, determine if the vehicle is occupied. Immediately notify police dispatch of your emergency, providing the exact location, name of the railroad and nature of the emergency. Dispatch will then notify the appropriate railroad dispatcher. Each agency should have a list of emergency railroad dispatchers for their local area.

When an emergency requires stopping a train, signals should be given on the engineer's side of the track. The engineer sits left of center when facing the lead engine. Patrol vehicles should be deployed two miles from the incident in both directions, parked parallel to, but never on the tracks. The common signal for "stop" is a flare, flashlight or lantern held approximately waist-high, swung from side-to-side in an exaggerated manner. Flares are the best warning device as they are easily seen in any kind of weather. Be cautious of dangerous flare slag as it can produce severe skin burns. Do not leave your post until an "all-clear" signal has been given by dispatch or the incident commander.

Response Considerations

The common response to railroad accidents requires the Code-3 operation of your emergency vehicle. You cannot help potential victims if you crash your vehicle while en-route to an accident scene. And, the very nature of railroad crash sites may require driving off-road to reach a rural destination. Good judgment and proper Code-3 driving techniques will help ensure your safe arrival at the scene.

Officers responding to rail accidents should consider hazardous spills. Commercial carriers transporting chemicals are often struck by trains attempting to cross railroad intersections. The impact may cause a train to derail or destroy the container truck. Always respond from an "upwind" direction to avoid potential dangerous fumes. Train containers and commercial trailers have placards indicating the materials they contain. When possible, locate these placard(s) and provide dispatch with the description of known hazardous materials and emergency numbers on the containers. CHEMTREC (1-800-424-9300) is an emergency hazardous materials company that identifies and assists in matters involving spills and the containment of hazardous materials. Use binoculars from a distance and avoid any area that is potentially contaminated. Specifically, the potential for explosion and fire danger runs very high in railroad related accidents. Don't enter any are you feel may be hazardous. That job is reserved for fire department or haz-mat specialists who have proper breathing apparatuses and training for haz-mat emergencies.

Specific to railroad accidents is the danger of blood-borne pathogens. Mortal injuries commonly result when an individual or vehicle is struck broadside by a train weighing more than 12 million pounds. If the deceased pedestrian's body or vehicle's occupant(s) are in public view, cover the body with a blanket; however, do not move any bodies unless instructed by the coroner on scene. Protect yourself from potential exposure to body fluids by wearing latex gloves, eye protection and protective clothing. Should you become exposed to body fluids or hazardous materials, notify your supervisor and complete a personal injury report.

Due to the sheer size of the accident scene, additional officers may be needed for crowd control, especially in populated areas. Valuable items must be guarded from theft. Be aware of persons attempting to steal anything from the scene.

Final Investigation

Train incidents are often complicated and may involve specific regulations. It is the responsibility of the investigating officer to determine the cause of the accident and if it involved an intoxicated driver. If associated factors indicate that railroad personnel may have been under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs during the time of the accident, notify the supervisor at the scene. Train engineers are not required to have a driver's license. Statements may be obtained form railroad personnel by requesting an interview via the railroad police supervisor at the scene.

The point of impact (POI) is often difficult to locate. It's not uncommon for destroyed vehicle to be carried for hundreds of yards before the train is able to come to a complete stop. Pedestrians are often impacted out of their shoes, indicating the POI> commonly, the spread of debris and liquids produced by a vehicle and/or pedestrians may indicate a POI> In any event, additional units will be required to provide traffic direction and to contain the accident scene. Train movement must be limited or stopped until the investigation is complete. Operation Lifesaver suggests that no officer attempt to climb between parked train cars. If the train should be moved, an individual may be potentially crushed or run over by the train.

Initially, treat the crash site as if it is a crime scene. This will help ensure the careful collection and preservation of evidence. Evidence collection should include proper photographs of the collision scene, including angles of vehicle approach, existing warning devices warning devices and impact shots

Certain investigative facts may indicate the collision was intentional. Carefully examine the wreckage for a "set" parking brake, cigarette butts near the POI, ignition keys in the "off" position, headlights that are off during hours of darkness, radio volume knobs turned up high and/or witness statements corroborating the same. Sometimes the victim will have a note in his clothing pockets.

In most cases, the media will make their presence known. Be prepared to provide a statement, or direct them to the incident commander.

The danger of railroad crossings cannot be stressed enough. Remember, trains don't always follow schedules. Railroad safety can be enhanced through community awareness and increased enforcement efforts. Brochures, "cheat-sheets" and additional information may be obtained by contacting the Operation Lifesaver Support Center in Alexandria Va., at 1-800-537-6224.

Randall C. Resch is editor of POLICE and a former police traffic accident investigator.

Tags: Police Vehicle Accidents, officer safety, Safety, Traffic Accident Investigation


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