Toxic train derailment reveals weakness in communication systems
"Communications between the 60 plus fire departments and First Responders which can be critical to life or death in dangerous situations was non-existent between many departments in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull Counties or with state officials.
Sunday, February 26th 2023, 8:57 PM EST
"We don't have the ability to communicate with other departments. It becomes a life threatening issue by not having that system," said Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David Comstock.
When the toxic train derailment happened in East Palestine fire fighters and hazmat crews responded from across our region. They battled huge flames, smoke, heat along with burning chemicals at the time having no idea what they were battling, wading in, or breathing initially.
Communications between the 60 plus fire departments and First Responders which can be critical to life or death in dangerous situations was non-existent between many departments in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull Counties or with state officials.
"The lack of our ability to communicate with other fire departments on a day to day basis is a critical life threatening situation. The Fire Chief's in Mahoning county are very upset that unfortunately we don't have the ability to communicate with each other," Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David Comstock said.
But about two days after the derailment the state started handing out radios to fire fighters, after it brought it's MARCS or Multi-Agency Radio Communications System to East Palestine.
If a train derailment happened in Mahoning County First Responders say they would not be able to communicate with other departments responding to help.
That's just one obstacle they faced in East Palestine with no way for the Fire Chief there to communicate with fire fighters from other counties or states.
That's why Fire Departments in Mahoning County say they need Ohio's Multi-Agency Communication system.
But the state claims Mahoning County's system needs to provide four million dollars in upgrades to make the platform compatible.
Mahoning county has a lot of radio towers, and that would improve the system for the Ohio State Highway Patrol and other state agencies such as the National Guard that use the state system but have inadequate communication systems.
In addition the state charges an additional ten dollars per radio per month which is a burden on volunteer fire departments.
"If we had a train derailment in Poland right now I could talk to Boardman, Canfield, Austintown, and Springfield, but I couldn't talk to anyone else. If I was calling on Trumbull County to help I couldn't talk to them either," Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David "Chip" Comstock said.
"The state of Ohio brought in it's mobile communication system with additional radios to hand out because East Palestine and Columbiana Counties don't have that system available to them," Comstock added.
"We think lawmakers should look at the MARCS, Multi-Agency Radio Communication System, affordable and make sure the infrastructure is built properly for rural uses," Comstock emphasized.
He believes there should be more legislative oversight of the MARCS system and believes there is limited accountability right now as run by the Department of Administrative Systems, an advisory board, not an oversight board.
"If I had the MARCS system I would communicate with highway patrol on any needed evacuations. I could communicate with the Sheriff's Department and with every fire department coming in from Ohio areas and as a situation escalated we could talk to the Ohio National Guard on that system," Chief Comstock said.
Chiefs are meeting this evening to discuss replacement of fire gear contaminated while assisting in fighting that fire.
"I think the fire chiefs need to discuss what are the options available, to look at presenting the bills to EMA, to their own insurance companies who will go after Norfolk Southern, or to present the bills to Norfolk Southern," Chief Comstock added.
HazMat had told chiefs if their boots were leather they need to be thrown away as well as pants where fire fighters were in the chemical soup as thousands of gallons of water was used to put out toxic rail cars on fire.
Departments and counties are reviewing plans in case of a train derailment.
"We need to always plan for the worse case scenario so reviewing our plant and making sure they're up to date, we need to do that and I think people are in the process of doing that." Comstock said.