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East Palestine train derailment shows how Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication training helps local leaders, especially in small towns

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Trent Conaway has a problem. 

The Norfolk-Southern train carrying 150 rail cars, three dozen of which were full of hazardous materials, that derailed in his town of 4,800 the evening of Feb 3, 2023 has produced a media firestorm. About twenty of the cars have been leaking toxic chemicals and fumes from into the town for days. 

The controlled burn to ignite the rail cars — what could reasonably be considered “the least bad of very bad options” to remove it, has spread burnt vinyl chloride, ash, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene across the region, killed fish and endangered wildlife, and sickened residents. All those chemicals can cause irritation or neurological symptoms like dizziness and headaches. One tank car lost its entire load of butyl acrylate, a clear liquid used to make paint, adhesives, and caulk.

But environmental problems aside, Conaway is a politician, answerable to the public. 

On February 7, four days after the derailment, the Mayor addresses a packed crowd at the local elementary school gymnasium-turned-command center:

“We’re doing our best,” he says. His approach is uniquely human and clearly shows the depth of their problem with no good, immediate answers. But around two minutes into this video from WKBN 27, the Mayor says:

“We don’t have media training, we’re a small little Ohio town. We’re doing the best we can.”

“We hear this a lot, particularly in small towns where a judge or police force is faced with a high-profile crime or trial, or a fire department has to respond to a devastating fire,”  says Joel Heavner, a trained CERC instructor with VPC. 

“Ultimately, Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) training helps leaders in these situations. They understand they need to be first, be right, be accurate, and be respectful and empathetic,” says Heavner.

Avoid making promises you can’t keep and be prepared for questions you expect

In another emotional discussion a little over a week later with East Palestine residents, the Mayor pleads for help:

“I need help. I’m not ready for this. I wasn’t built for this.” He proceeds to say, “I’ll do whatever it takes — whatever it takes — to make this right.”

Rail cars burn in this illustrated example of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment

“People trained in CERC know never to make promises they can’t keep,” says Heavner. “And it’s very likely this is a promise he can’t keep. The town reasonably just isn’t financed or equipped to handle this kind of HazMat event by itself.”

Emotions at the town halls run nearly as hot as the burning train cars as people hear statements from health and local leaders that conflict with the reality they experience on the ground. Within 14 days of the wreck, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency inspectors declared the area safe, but Norfolk-Southern rail employees were still removed from the area, citing a need to protect their health and safety.

At one town hall-style meeting, where participants could approach one-by-one with questions directed to leaders and experts, the Mayor switched the format — likely a result of fearing for everyone’s safety as tempers rose — in the middle of the session. “That was probably predictable,” says Heavner.

Those who evacuated the area often left their pets behind, particularly cats, who may be unable to travel or stay in hotels or with family elsewhere. “It won’t be a surprise people want to know timelines and assurances, even if lab work and tests aren’t complete yet. You still need a response that spells that out without overcommitting anyone,” says Heavner.

Lack of hazmat training, equipment hampers fire departments but options exist

Of some 300 firefighters across 50 departments that responded to the fire, most lacked the equipment, hazardous materials training, or safety gear to fight the blaze. Investigators are revealing the also were not able to get information about the chemicals in the overturned cars. From a story on CNN:

There’s an app, AskRail, meant to give users more information about the what’s on trains involved in accidents, but none of the first responders to the derailment in East Palestine had access to it, Homendy said.

Even if they had been able to use it, the app lists what is in cars by their order on the train, and its information may have been of limited help to firefighters on the scene who were looking at cars that were “bunched up” and not in their normal order, said David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Fire District.

“For most fire departments, hazardous materials training and equipment is kept at the basic levels due and may be getting cut due to resources and funding. They usually focus on fuel spills and perhaps agricultural events,” says Jamey Burrows, VPC’s HazMat Branch Director. 

“Regardless there are training resources available to fire departments and emergency management groups to assist if the potential for a highway or railroad hazmat should occur in their area,” says Burrows. “Pre-planning, policies and procedures, response and incident management training, and some basic equipment can make a huge difference on any given response in the future.”

The reality for local leaders is disasters of any kind can strike anywhere, often unleashing a torrent of long-term problems that impact residents. “Residents aren’t stupid, either — people can tell when problems are being handled reasonably, or the people in charge are out of their depth,” says Heavner.

“The Mayor can’t be blamed for not being an expert on hazardous materials,” says Heavner. “We shouldn’t be mad at a guy like him, and I don’t want to blame him. But in a small town like East Palestine it’s not unreasonably people vent their frustrations with him.”

Thick, heavy black smoke billows above some modest residential apartments in East Palestine, Ohio.

Local leaders can benefit from CERC instruction

For most elected officials, CERC training may be the most effective and appropriate training for them to have while federal and state experts handle larger logistical emergencies and cleanup. 

“CERC training is all about managing expectations and educating the public in an honest, truthful way that protects life and property,” says Heavner. “You can bet the rail line has trained their PR people for this.” At many public meetings and forums, railroad representatives were not present or did not comment, likely the best thing they could do to maintain legal protection.

But public leaders have different responsibilities. A day after the train derailment, Mayor Conaway said this to a reporter:

“And by the way, just so everybody knows I’ve tried to keep my cool and now I’ve lost it and I apologize. I’m a part-time mayor, I have to feed my family too. What makes me emotional is that sometimes I don’t think people think I really care,” he said.

“I usually just run the meetings and go to a couple special meetings here and there,” Conaway continued. “I don’t do that full time, I have a full-time job other than this. So I’m trying to run a plant on the outside of town and do this at the same time. My boss has been gracious where I work. But it’s been a month now, so I sort of have to start easing back into my real job.”

“Telling people about your plight, ever how fair or sincere that might be, rarely helps the situation,” says Heavner. Elected officials are elected to do a job, and sometimes that job is overseeing tragedies and emergencies.

“None of us would wish this on anyone,” says Heavner. Like disaster preparedness and drills, local leaders and public-facing officials should consider crisis and emergency risk communication a necessary part of their training. “This cleanup will take a long time,” says Heavner. “Both the physical and environmental as well as the emotional and political.”

Learn more about Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication training and courses

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