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Reflecting on the events that unravelled on one of the busiest stretches of railway in Canada on a sunny Sunday afternoon

April 20, 2012
By Laura King


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Reflecting on the events that unravelled on one of the busiest stretches of railway in Canada on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Chief Shayne Mintz of the Burlington Fire Department was justifiably proud of his firefighters and yet conflicted by his reaction.

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Firefighters work to mop up some diesel spilled in the locomotive of the Via train that derailed in Burlington, Ont., on Feb. 26. Photos by David Ritchie


 

Chief Mintz was moved by the enor-mity of the accident – three men died in the carnage of flipped rail cars. But in densely populated southern Ontario, it could have been far worse.

“It was a tragic event, there’s no doubt about it,” said Mintz. “But if someone had to say, you guys are going to have a train derailment but I’m going to let you pick where it’s going to happen, we couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

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He listed the simple facts that kept the Feb. 26 incident from becoming a larger catastrophe.

“The weather, the location, the type of train – it was a five-car train and it only had one and a half cars full of passengers – so, it’s a bizarre thing to say, and I’m not trivializing it at all because three people lost their lives – but if it had happened half a kilometre down track, the cars would have been piled into the back of the Fortinos [grocery store] and the Ikea,” he said.

“Or if it had happened further in the other direction it would have had rail cars resting on backyards and pools.”

None of those things happened, but the events of that day still tested the training of not just Burlington’s firefighters, but also many of Halton Region’s emergency responders.

In a series of interviews, some of the participants pieced together the successful response and the lessons learned.

*   *   *

Acting Capt. Kim Bevington’s crew from Station 3 was the second team of firefighters on scene of the Via derailment on Feb. 26. En route, in the pumper, Bevington saw uninjured passengers disembarking and walking down the tracks, suitcases in hand; it was a bizarre and surreal vision, she recalled a few weeks later.

The level rail crossing was easily accessible for apparatus and rescuers. Just two of the train’s five passenger cars were in use, and all firefighters and officers heading to the King Road location adjusted their thinking when it became clear that the call  – initially a hazmat – was, instead, a rescue operation, and, later, a recovery.

As crews arrived within three minutes from Stations 1, 3 and 6, they were assigned tasks by incident commander and platoon chief Ross Monteith, whose methodical evaluation of the needs at hand and sectoring of the scene led to what Montieth’s superior officers called a meticulous and smoothly run operation.

Despite a quick and effective response by police, fire and EMS, and impeccable co-operation among all agencies due to strong working relationships through the Halton Region’s Joint Emergency Services Operational Advisory Group (JESOAG), Chief Mintz says Burlington Fire learned some lessons that day about the power of the press on a quiet Sunday afternoon when a train derailment in suburban (southern Ontario) made international headlines.

The response
Via Rail train No. 92 started its journey in Niagara Falls and was making its way through Burlington eastbound toward Toronto. At about 3:28 p.m., at the crossing at King Road where 19 cars left the tracks in 2008, something went wrong and the engine and five passenger cars derailed (a class action lawsuit has been filed).

The fire department’s initial response was 15 staff; that number rose to 43 as the need for more ladders and other equipment increased, and with a shift change at supper time. Burlington is a composite department, so volunteer firefighters were paged out of Station 1.

Police and EMS were already on scene when the first fire crews arrived. EMS superintendent Tom Stirling was on site, and two Ornge helicopters had been summoned. Stirling co-ordinated the EMS response of 13 ambulances from Halton Region and the City of Hamilton, and the transport of 32 patients to three hospitals. Burlington’s Roads, Parks and Maintenance department brought barricades. Halton Regional Police brought their command post and a public information officer – a resource who turned out to be  indispensable; the police tactical group preserved the scene overnight before the Transportation Safety Board investigation began. The Ontario Provincial Police contained the perimeter.

Burlington Fire led the rescue effort for about 90 minutes.

“At that point, if you were to listen to air traffic, you would hear IC Ross Monteith asking for second and third walk through of rail cars to make sure they were totally emptied out,” said Deputy Chief Tony Bavota.

“We were really in two operational modes that day. One was rescue and the other one was recovery. About 90 minutes in we moved from a rescue mode into a recovery mode.”

Although rescuers were challenged by the locomotive’s heavy-gauge steel, they were able to confirm fairly quickly that there were three deceased, says Monteith.

“The coroner arrived quickly . . . so we went to recovery mode from rescue mode and were able to slow down and make sure our people were not at risk.

The response from other agencies willing to help was impressive, Deputy Chief Bavota says.

“We had offers of assistance from all kinds of allied agencies and partners – Hamilton Fire, Oakville Fire, Emergency Management Ontario, the fire marshal’s office, and police had been contacted by the provincial HUSAR team as well. Ross Monteith placed a call for a diesel spill through our spills protocol – there was some diesel that leaked out of locomotive.

“The reports that we got from our officers who were on scene were that there was very little need for verbal communication among the three agencies on scene, but everyone worked together really well. Really it was an all-hands-on-deck movement to get these passengers out of these rail cars.”

The scene
Essentially, with just a bit of leaking diesel that was contained, no other hazmat issues, and serious but not life-threatening injuries to passengers, the operation was similar to a large-scale motor-vehicle collision. The objective was to extricate passengers and get them to EMS for care.

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Co-operation among rescue personnel was seamless thanks to training and a regional program through which responders have worked together. Photos by David Ritchie


 

“It was really a large-scale vehicle rescue,” said firefighter Paul Keyes, who was stationed at the flipped-over locomotive, helping to locate the three Via employees.

“We were working together so well with the other responders because that’s what we do every day, it was just on a larger scale, and working in sectors made it easier for command, dealing with three sector officers rather than 25 firefighters.”

Capt. Tim Dowd was at one end of a passenger car, helping to get people out.

“It made it much easier for everyone to take direction under that type of command structure,” he said.

Early reports indicated that there were 75 passengers on the train but there was confusion over numbers. Monteith had connected with the purser, who had only  45 tickets (presumably not all tickets from passengers who had just boarded in Aldershot had been accounted for) and some people had self-evacuated the train without reporting to rescuers. A fourth Via employee, riding in an empty passenger car, had the manifest and was instrumental in helping to contact Via personnel. She confirmed that there were two engineers and a trainee in the locomotive. 

Monteith advises rescuers in similar circumstances to quickly connect with anyone on scene from the company, and collect business cards for follow-up information.

Deputy Chief Dave Beatty was also stationed near the overturned locomotive and describes the scene.

“Our crews were on site within three minutes; we did a scene survey to make sure they weren’t walking into anything more tragic or hazardous,” he says.

“And then seeing the rail cars on their sides . . . We had people entering the train from the rear and doing a sweep forward; you can imagine the train is on its side so we’re having to go in through a side window, get people up and out through side windows . . . You have to be careful you’re not doing further damage when you’re breaking glass. We were laddering windows; one or two people had to be basketed out; those were the kinds of challenges that our people faced.”

Elevated tracks and debris picked up by the locomotive when it derailed and skidded complicated access for rescuers.

“It was like a like a plow,” says firefighter Keyes. “Guardrail, barbed-wire fence, stone from a landscape place, there was quite a pile of debris.

“We could confirm one fatality fairly early on, but it was difficult to access the car. We started to co-ordinate the removal; we would direct someone to get rid of this chunk of stuff, then we’d listen and use the thermal imaging camera to be able to tell there was no one in certain places; we were looking for shirtsleeves and boots. The engineers had personal effects in the cab so once you find something you had to confirm whether it was a personal item or part of a person . . . ” 

There was some concern about the locomotive’s stability – “It has a lot of weight behind it,” says Keyes. The train had come to rest against big, concrete blocks near the landscape company and they provided more stability than rescuers could have created. “Without those blocks the locomotive would have been on its side,” Keyes said.

Acting Capt. Bevington, who was at the opposite end of the same passenger car as Dowd, says crews were focused on their tasks.

“We were almost in the bubble where we were,” she says. “We went straight into that train and didn’t come out until everyone was out. All the [crew] knew was we were in this car helping people get out; it wasn’t until we were clear of that car and were preparing to leave that we realized the magnitude . . .”
That speaks to the effectiveness of sectoring, says Monteith.

“They helped get people out and they were looking after them; we were giving people tasks and they were doing them over and over again.”

Keyes says the calm demeanour of the responders, led by Monteith’s steady command, gave passengers confidence in the rescue operation.

“People were calling for help and if we’re in an excited state then it transcends to them,” he said. “It comes down to a good IC handing out assignments.”

Bevington agrees. “We just applied our training to this incident.” 

Lessons learned

Communication 1: Know your counterparts
Through the Halton Region’s joint emergency group, about 80 senior emergency services personnel had been taught IMS 100 and 200 and unified command, and had participated in a mock-disaster exercise. (See Fire Fighting in Canada November 2011, Unified Integration, A multi-agency approach to large-scale emergencies) “I think the strength of the training that day was the relationships,” says Deputy Chief Bavota. “We know our counterparts by name so it was very clear who to talk to when you required different resources.”

Chief Mintz credits the JESOAG group for the smooth rescue and recovery operation.

“Every one of the command officers that was in the command post – we knew them and they knew us by first name,” he said.

“That works really well to keep things under control and well organized. You need to ger along with the other agencies because you don’t want to be figuring that out on the scene. There are always outside issues and people driving agendas.”

Communication 2: Managing the media
Responding agencies decided early on that police would handle the media, using a trained public information officer.
“He did a pretty decent job of keeping the media away from where the recovery was taking place,” Chief Mintz says, “recognizing that we wanted to respect the dignity of the individuals that were in that rail car.”

Still, there were challenges.

Five media choppers were in the air overhead snapping aerial shots of the scene (indeed, Chief Mintz’s first reaction when he arrived and heard the buzz of multiple helicopters was the realization that if the news choppers happened to bump into one another, things would go from bad to worse).

CNN was calling – it was a quiet Sunday afternoon with little or nothing else newsworthy happening (the Daytona 500 had been postponed due to weather) – along with The Canadian Press, Associated Press, CTV, CBC, Global, the local TV stations and the newspapers, and reports of fatalities had got out.

Chief Mintz says a better co-ordinated communication protocol with city officials would have been ideal.

“What I’d like to see is a well-regulated, media-release process where our communicators aren’t going to release information over the phone,” he said.

“One of the lessons learned is getting our crisis communication team up and running as quickly as possible. The helicopters in the sky do mean something, so our local communications / public relations manager – we got her engaged, but that probably didn’t happen until 6 p.m. One thing we have been trying to do is make sure we’re aligned with corporate standards.”

Deputy Chief Jeff Weber says even Burlington’s dispatch centre was getting calls from CNN and other international media as the 6 p.m. news hour approached.

“We were getting inundated with calls from media, and protocol was to push that back to media relations phone numbers that were provided,” he said. “But it gets difficult when media is prying. We’re not used to getting calls from CNN and New York and they’re very aggressive in asking their questions.”

There was a minor glitch on the Monday after the derailment when Via and TSB held a press conference but did not inform Burlington city officials.

“I happened to be with the city manager at the time,” says Mintz, “and he asked me to go to the site – the last thing you want to do is show up in uniform because reporters will approach anybody in uniform for information . . . It’s really media relations 101: if they keep coming with questions, stick with your key messages and just keep answering every one of their questions with those key messages.”

Communication 3: Corporate co-operation
Keeping the mayor, the CAO or city manager, councillors and even provincial and federal politicians informed in any large-scale emergency is critical. Excluding them makes them look uninformed in the eyes of their constituents.

Chief Mintz opted not to request the emergency operations centre be opened or ask the city to declare an emergency. In retrospect, he says, further involving city officials may have been wise.

“Even if the situation is under control – from our perspective everything was cool, however, the city manager and  general managers had an interest in playing a role – so even though it wasn’t an emergency in our minds it was in theirs.”

Ideally, Mintz says, he would have called a standby activation, which essentially puts personnel on alert that a situation could develop into a larger-scale emergency.

“That probably would have worked out a lot better,” he says. “In the overall assessment of things it wasn’t an emergency for us in the fire service, although it looked very dramatic.”

Mintz recognizes that reporting to politicians can be very challenging for fire officials whose first priority is to ensure safety, so he offers some advice to make sure your department effectively fulfils this role.

“If you don’t like it and you’re not good at it, you might want to find somebody who does like it and who is good at it,” he says. “Be aware of what [the politicians’ and bureaucrats’] sensitivities are, and support them however you can. How are they looking at this thing and what lenses are they looking through? Be sensitive to that, and know at the command level what’s important to the people you report to.”


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