By HANS MADSEN
Fort Dodge firefighters Cory McFarland, left, and Devan Schipper encounter a big billow of “ammonia” vapors as they open the hatch on a training tank car Tuesday afternoon during a training session with the Canadian National Railway. The three-car train, which includes a caboose, classroom in a boxcar and the modified tank car, is part of the Transcaer program.
For members of the Region V Hazmat team, training usually consists of going to a classroom, but for a training session held Tuesday, the classroom came to them.
The training facility, on loan to the Canadian National Railway from DuPont Chemical, consists of three railroad cars: a caboose, a boxcar and a specially built tank car that's part of their Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response program. It was parked on a siding near the remains of the roundhouse and turntable that once served steam engines.
Inside the boxcar is a classroom complete with cutaway samples of the various fittings crews will find on leaking tank cars. The caboose is used for breaks, office space, spare parts and to store specialized equipment.
Anthony Ippolito, CN Railway senior dangerous goods officer, said the tank car can simulate almost any emergency.
"There are 100 different places it can leak," he said.
What comes out of those leaking places depends on the emergency being simulated. CO2 is one option to simulate frost, compressed air is another and smoke, a third. There are six different filler valves.
"It helps keep it as realistic as possible," he said.
The mobile teaching lab lets the railroad offer communities it serves with everything from simple information to more in depth sessions like Tuesday's.
He said that so far, more than 200 emergency personnel have taken instruction in the train through 20 communities in Iowa. It will travel to about 20 communities in eastern Canada next, Ippolito said.
The training is free to the fire departments.
"They're our response partners," he said. "We want to make sure they're trained."
Fort Dodge Fire Department Capt. Steve Hergenreter was impressed with what the tank car could do for his crew.
"This is as realistic as it gets," he said as he watched "ammonia" vapor hissing out of one of the filler hatches on top of the car.
He also appreciated the connection the training gives him to the railroad's dangerous goods officers. He said that their experience is invaluable.
"They will let us know the right things to do to keep us safe," he said.
For the members of the Fire Department that are Hazmat technicians, Tuesday's session served as continuing education. Hergenreter said that to maintain their certification, they train eight hours each month in addition to a 24-hour session each year. Their initial training is an 80-hour course.
He expects to use what they learn.
"Our Hazmat team has responded to several derailments," he said. "Our coverage area includes the Union Pacific mainline along U.S. Highway 30 which sees about 120 trains a day."
He said that both the railroads that serve the area, the Union Pacific and Canadian National Railway, are very supportive of training local emergency responders.
Firefighters Devan Schipper and Cory McFarland were selected to suit up and climb up onto the tank car to stop the leak.
Once atop the car, they had their work cut out for them.
"Everything and anything was leaking," McFarland said, "You couldn't see anything."
Schipper encountered the same difficulty. They both had to find the leaking valves by hand and fix everything by feel. The hissing made it difficult to work too.
"It was hard to communicate," Schipper said, "even though he's right next to me."
The time inside the plastic suit takes its toll too.
"Even though it's a nice day, Schipper said, "I'm still really hot."
Of course, the day's training gave the firefighters a rare treat - lunch in a caboose.