GUEST COLUMN: AskRail App Helps Mississippi Emergency Responders


AskRail App Helps Mississippi Emergency Responders
By George Horn

The freight rail industry’s focus on improving rail infrastructure has enhanced safety in Mississippi and across the U.S., making accidents an increasingly rare occurrence. But they can still occur. This is why it’s imperative that the industry continues to support first responders in their efforts to save lives and protect their communities. One way they do this is by deploying technologies like the AskRail mobile app.

Rail accidents present unique challenges to first responders. Freight trains can contain hundreds of cars, some of which might be carrying hazardous materials. In the past, emergency personnel arriving on the scene first had to locate a physical copy of the train manifest to see which cars were carrying these materials.

But in the crucial moments after an emergency—when every second counts—first responders must act fast, connecting with conductors or accessing a train’s consist as quickly as possible to size up the situation. This is where an added layer of technological support from the mobile app AskRail can help make a difference.

AskRail, which the freight rail industry developed in partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, tells first responders in real-time whether railcars involved in an accident are carrying hazardous materials such as oil or fertilizers, allowing them to protect themselves and vulnerable locations nearby. The app also provides emergency personnel with information about how to properly handle and contain such materials.

It also includes enhanced mapping technology that can pinpoint important locations within a half-mile of the tracks, including schools, fire stations and natural resources. This information enables first responders to establish isolation zones to contain any hazardous materials with a full understanding of the surrounding community. It also lists contact information for emergency response experts at every major Class I railroad and Amtrak, enabling railroads to directly guide personnel on the ground.

The AskRail application is just one part of the freight rail industry’s ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of communities and first responders. For example, Norfolk Southern’s HazMat safety train will make nearly two dozen stops throughout the country by the end of 2018, including stops in Hattiesburg and Meridian this past spring.

I’ve also had the opportunity to attend a training at the Transportation Technology Center Inc., a testing and technology branch of the Association of American Railroads in Pueblo, Colo. It was invaluable to me and several of my fellow Jackson firefighters to get hands-on experience with the types of rail cars and safety challenges we would encounter in an accident. It’s undoubtedly just as valuable for the thousands of first responders who train there every year.

Our goal as first responders is to protect the community from any dangers it may face, no matter how rare. But we cannot do it alone. The AskRail app is the latest iteration of the freight industry’s partnership with states to shoulder some of this responsibility for protecting the communities where it operates. Through trainings and technologies like AskRail, railroads are helping to keep Mississippi’s first responders, and the communities we serve, as safe as possible.

George Horn is the special operations coordinator for the Jackson Fire Department.