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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.

September 01, 1996  |  by Randall C. Resch

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 en­route 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 potentially 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 incidents. Don't enter any area 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 just 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 from 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 a 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, indicting 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 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 POL 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.

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