AAR Director of Hazmat Compliance, Andy Elkins, gives an in-depth look at the app to members of the Columbiana, OH Emergency Communications Center

In another major stride toward enhancing rail emergency response, AAR, working with member company Norfolk Southern, integrated AskRail® into the Columbiana County, OH and Beaver County, PA emergency management agencies (EMAs) dispatching services. This initiative underscores the rail industry’s unwavering commitment to ensure that first responders can quickly access the right information to plan a safe response to any rail-related emergency.

“Serving nearly every community across the nation, railroads are dedicated to preventing an accident before it happens and also bear the responsibility of equipping first responders with the right tools and training to manage a rail emergency safely and effectively,” emphasized AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “Following the East Palestine incident, railroads pledged to dramatically increase the availability of AskRail and today are providing more than 2.3 million first responders with streamlined and reliable access to this critical tool.”

Launched in 2014, the AskRail app was developed in partnership with the emergency response community to provide accurate, timely data about the hazardous materials transported in rail cars. This information empowers first responders to make informed decisions swiftly during a rail emergency. Following East Palestine, AAR and the rail industry conducted a thorough risk assessment of AskRail to identify areas for improvement. The industry has put in years of effort to provide individual responders access to the AskRail app and is now committed to greatly expanding access through a more centralized, universally accessible approach.

Today, railroads’ AskRail objectives have been threefold:

  1. Increase continuity of coverage and information.
  2. Ensure reliability of communications streams.
  3. Streamline communications to create a more efficient response.

To further enhance accessibility, AskRail has been integrated into CHEMTREC and CANUTEC’s 24/7 call centers in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. Through existing hazmat certification programs, first responders are trained to utilize these call centers for assistance in managing a chemical emergency response. This integration ensures that AskRail is now universally available to first responders in these two countries.

However, railroads recognize that most volunteer fire departments, which make up nearly 82% of all U.S. fire departments and protect almost 30% of the U.S. population, according to the National Fire Protection Association, may be unfamiliar with CHEMTREC. Instead, when volunteer responders are called to the scene of an emergency, they are trained to utilize their county’s EMA or Emergency Communications Centers (ECC), more commonly known as dispatch, as their primary line of communication.

By integrating AskRail into ECCs, railroads ensure those forces have access to vital information via established, streamlined and reliable communications channels. ECCs are mandated to always have backup power generation, redundant radio communications to first responders in the field and around-the-clock staffing. By leveraging these centers, AskRail data becomes an integral part of the standard communication protocols for all first responders – whether paid or volunteer – for handling potential emergencies within a community.

In July, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a safety advisory notice that noted, “Maintaining multiple access points to the emergency response information via both the emergency responders at the scene, as well as via 9-1-1 call centers, provides redundancy and helps ensure access to necessary information in the event of cellular data outage due to inclement weather, power failure, or lack of coverage at the accident site.” Expanding this access in Columbiana and Beaver counties today is just one more step the railroads are taking to support first responders and protect the communities they serve. Officials from PHMSA were present for the trainings in Columbiana and Beaver Counties today.

The ultimate goal of the AAR and its members is integrating AskRail into the nation’s ECCs. As outreach to local ECCs is ongoing, emergency managers can proactively download the Windows Desktop Application version of AskRail to their dispatch center computer system and begin the approval process at AskRail.us.