As I pulled out my driveway in Adelphia, New Jersey this morning, I really had no idea of what to expect during my first road trip stop in Hershey, Pennsylvania. As Jack Peltier and I tooled down the New Jersey Turnpike in my GMC Suburban, I decided to give my host in Hershey, Lt. Rodney Sonderman, a call. From the onset of the call I found out that things might work out a bit differently than I ever could have imagined.
He apologized for the fact that the department might not be able to spend a great deal of time with me because they were in the midst of a major hazardous materials incident in downtown Hershey. It seems that eight cars of a Norfolk Southern railroad freight train had derailed near a railroad overpass next to one of the main Hershey Company plants. Rodney told me that he would explain further what had happened after we got to Hershey.
This only serve to pique our interests for what Jack and I might find. Let me tell you my friends here and now, I could not have asked for a better entree to the world of defining the FIRE Act's success in supporting the American Fire Service. Success greeted me at along every turn.
We met our host at the fire station located in the downtown area. However, before he arrived, we chatted with a number of members who were more than happy to show us the good things which the FIRE Act had allowed them to do.
The first thing I noted was that they had installed a complete automatic fire sprinkler protection system in their decades-old fire station. In light of the fact that more than 100 firehouses are damaged to some extent each year by fire, this impressed me as a very good move on the part of the Hershey Volunteer Fire Department.
These firefighters, who had all been up for many hours during the night, then went on to show me the on-board computers installed on all of the equipment. It was at this point that Lt. Sonderman arrived and took us to observe the on-going rail incident.
It seems that one of the major items funded by the FIRE Act was a fire safety house to teach school children how to be safe in the event of fire. Since the schools were not in session, the Hershey Volunteer Fire Department rolled this unit to the scene to serve as a command post for the incident. When we arrived, the computers and printers were busy spitting out hourly up date reports and photos for the command staff.
Jack and I were then briefed by the Incident Commander, Assistant Chief Jason Hottenstein. Both he and Lt. Sonderman made a point of describing the way in which the on-board computers and global-positioning systems, funded by the FIRE Act, were of tremendous value during the initial stages of this operation.
It seems that as Lt. Sonderman, serving as the department's Duty Officer, arrived at the incident, he encountered a sight not often seen. He saw a great many railroad tank cars scattered about the scene like so many toys tossed about by a giant. He quickly entered the location data into the computer in his vehicle. He then stepped out of his vehicle and counted the number of derailed cars.
He also noted that a great many hazardous materials placards were present and was able to determine that the greatest hazard came from a derailed and overturned chlorine tanker. Once he made this determination, he was able to quickly determine the area within the 1,000-foot evacuation radius that had to be addressed. He then passed that information to the Incident Commander who determined that an evacuation was in order. The initial evacuation was then begun.
As the incident grew in size and complexity, the computer and GPS equipment proved invaluable. It allowed them to expand the size of the evacuation area by the touch of a few key strokes. The equipment was so precise that the command staff was able to assign fire personnel to evacuate the nearby homes and businesses by street address.