It's been 16 months since the Norfolk Southern Train derailment in East Palestine. 

Since 2015, the train company has offered its free Operation Awareness and Response Program to cultivate and strengthen relationships with first responders who assist with rail accidents. This is the first local session since the disaster in East Palestine. Wednesday's training focused on hazmat crews from Mahoning, Trumbull and Portage Counties at Norfolk Southern's Poland Avenue location in Youngstown. 

"Every so many years, we will have training in this specific type of emergency," said Stephen Szekely, Chief of the Mahoning County Hazmat Team. "Then obviously after East Palestine, it [rail accident safety] went to the front of everybody's list. We were confident in how we responded the night of East Palestine's train derailment, but this training kept our skills up. We get to work with the other hazmat teams throughout training, so when we do have an incident, it runs a bit smoother because we know everybody's capabilities."

Norfolk Southern's Operation Awareness & Response program travels the rail company's 22-state network, offering free training on rail emergencies for first responders. All of the training takes place aboard the NS Safety Train.

"They can get their hands on some equipment, they can learn about railroad operations," said Heather Garcia, Senior Communications Manager with Norfolk Southern. "We do a little bit of railroad 101 in the classroom and then most critically we get a lot of opportunities to get on the equipment while running through some scenarios."

Just last year, the rail company reached 1,947 first responders through 12 OAR Safety Train events. The rail company plans to expand the program in 2024, to offer 20 scheduled stops. The training helps communities prepare for an accident similar to the East Palestine derailment after hundreds of first responders worked together in the accident's aftermath. The train is equipped with boxcar classrooms, tank cars, and a locomotive for in-depth, hands-on training.

"Our guys can operate in the suits they would be in in a state of emergency," explained Kevin Kuriatnyk, Chief of the Trumbull County Hazmat Team. "It gives them a safe learning environment to get used to using those tools in the suits."

"The hazmat team is all about mitigation and stopping the spread of the leak," Szekely added. "So our crews today are simulating the tank leaking. Our goal is to get in there and stop that leak."

"Agencies appreciate the chance to get on real equipment," Garcia added. "The train is built specifically for training for crews to experience. It's critical we get to build relationships with the first responder agencies as well."

Efforts to ensure first responders work to the highest efficiency, if another train accident were to happen again in our area.

"The more training we can get, the more familiarity we can get," Kuriatnyk said. "That puts our people that much further ahead of the game."

Norfolk Southern plans to host a session later this month in Portsmouth, Ohio. Visit Norfolk Southern's website to learn more about the program.