There is suddenly a loud boom.

Smoke exhales out of an overturned tank car. Flames reach up toward the morning sky as first responders rush to the scene.

It’s just another day at the world-class Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC). Located at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), in Pueblo, Colorado, SERTC is where the freight rail industry’s safety experts train emergency responders in how to safely respond to a rail incident. Today at the facility, a 19-car train with tank cars designed to carry flammable liquid is set up as a mock derailment — complete with actual fire. First responders attending the center’s crude-oil-by-rail (CBR) safety training program are learning how to respond to a CBR event.

Although a CBR event is extremely rare (statistically, there is a 0. 01% likelihood of a rail incident involving crude oil), railroads make every effort to educate and train emergency responders so they are prepared. As the volume of crude oil shipments has increased over the past few years, railroads have worked with the Federal Railroad Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and SERTC to develop customized training.

“Crude-by-rail training was developed to assist our member railroads in training emergency responders from their service territories,” says Mike Cook, TTCI’s Executive Director of hazardous materials compliance and training. “Training and safety is a top priority and that’s why individual railroads stepped up to pay both for the training setting as well as the emergency responders’ tuitions.” 

Like railroads, SERTC is committed to supporting first responders. The center has over 30 years of experience providing training that covers everything from hazardous materials to CBR to toxic inhalation hazards. Since its inception in 1985, SERTC has trained more than 70,000 students worldwide.

“Many firefighters are new to the rigors of CBR safety when they arrive at SERTC,” says Glen Rudner, a seasoned safety expert and General Manager at the center. “Learning these basics is still a necessary competence.”

Over the course of three days, each emergency responder receives personalized instruction to meet their specific needs. Attendees learn about railroad tank cars, the different types of crude oil and how to safely respond to a CBR emergency based on the capabilities of their community.

“I think this is an absolute must for all fire personnel,” says John Sigler, fire chief of Boone, Colorado, and a program graduate. “I am absolutely more prepared to cope with a potential crude oil situation in my community.”

In recognition of the quality of its training programs, TTCI recently received additional funding for hazardous materials emergency response training from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, or NDPC. Through the new grant — which includes travel costs for students — TTCI officials estimate they can train a total of 1,556 first responders in various courses, including 540 students for CBR response techniques over the next two years.

Thanks to an additional $2.4 million award from PHMSA, the Center for Rural Development has partnered with TTCI’s rail safety experts and will travel the country to instruct rural volunteer emergency responders about flammable liquids emergency response. Because firefighters have limited time for training, SERTC experts created a specific eight-hour classroom and hands-on training course. A portion of the grant funding went toward creating a new Web-based training module about flammable liquids moved by rail that launched in 2016.

After completing SERTC training, responder-students bring what they learned back home to mentor their colleagues. “Our goal is to give the students greater knowledge of crude transportation,” says Cook. “And in that rare event they need to respond to a crude incident, they will have the tools needed to make a decision and take action.”

Learn More About SERTC