Mobile app helps first responders quickly and safely assess rail accidents

This program enables firefighters and others to quickly determine if rail cars have potentially hazardous, explosive, or flammable materials.

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Rail accidents can be disastrous for anyone on board or in direct path of the train. If it's a freight train carrying hazardous materials, the impact can be much more far reaching. A mobile app, called AskRail, which draws on big data, helps firefighters and other first responders stay safe, save lives, and protect communities in the event of such accidents.

AskRail, developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of American Railroads, aggregates data to provide first responders with instantaneous access to critical, real-time scene assessment tools in the event of a train accident.

This includes the ability to search the contents of every rail car involved in a derailment for potentially hazardous, explosive, or flammable materials, as well as access to updated maps that have the locations of community assets such as hospitals, schools, and rivers within a half-mile of the accident. This is provided via GPS technology.

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The app processes and aggregates multiple data sources spanning hundreds of database tables in order to provide accurate and real-time shipment documentation to the emergency responders at incident sites, according to Railinc, the IT and services subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, which developed and administers the app.

To achieve real-time access, the app is designed with event-based data capture for storage, and API-based real-time data retrieval for access. The programming for data capture and access is hosted in Railinc's data center to ensure secure access.

Currently the app, which first responders can download for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, is tracking data from 1.61 million railcars registered in Railinc's industry database.

Before using AskRail, first responders would have to locate the conductor or the train manifest to obtain crucial information on what a particular train is carrying, which could be difficult, time consuming, or even impossible depending on the circumstances.

The responders can now determine within seconds if chemical exposure poses a threat to responders, how large an evacuation area to prepare, and how to best confine the incident to minimize a contaminant release.

"AskRail allows first responders to view the contents of an entire train and see whether a certain car contains hazardous materials," said Charles Werner, retired chief of the Charlottesville, Va., fire department, who serves on the board of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council, is an expert on emergency rail response technology, and was instrumental in the development of AskRail.

"Many of the people I've spoken to in the first responder community agree that this app is game changer," Werner said. "AskRail was developed because the freight rail industry took the time to really listen to the needs of first responders. This app arms first responders with every piece of information they need from the railroads to plan a safe response, including rapid, real-time access to information about railcar contents, what to do if there is a release from one of those cars, and where to establish isolation zones based upon that information."

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Werner recalls a train accident in Charlottesville in 1979 that involved carbon disulfide. "The car had a leak and fire, and we had to come in close contact with the car to assess and respond to the situation," he said. It took several hours to determine what responders were dealing with. With AskRail, first responders would have that information within minutes, he said.

It's an especially valuable tool for volunteer firefighters, especially those in rural areas who might not have access to the same resources as departments in larger cities, Werner said. The freight rail industry is continuing to enhance and adapt the app based on feedback from first responders, he said.

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