Watertown is one of the handful of towns that interrupt the farms and fields of Dodge County, Wisconsin.

Multiple Class I railroads crisscross the county, carrying freight — including crude oil — between Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and on to points beyond.

On Nov. 8, 2015, a train carrying crude oil derailed nearby. Jason Hensler, an engine crew member in the Clyman, Wisconsin, fire department and a member of the Dodge County Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Response Team, was one of the first emergency responders on the scene.

Lt. Hensler used the freight rail industry’s AskRail™ app to determine the contents of the derailed tank cars and execute an emergency safety action plan. Thanks to the efforts of Lt. Hensler and other first responders, no fires or injuries were reported.

“Driving to the incident, I was concerned because I know the community pretty well, and know that there are a large number of homes and a park relatively close to the derailed train,” Hensler says. “My first thought right out of the gate was the safety of the people in the community and the safety of our first responders.”

“We had to walk about a quarter of a mile from our vehicles to get to where the 13 train cars had derailed. As we were walking, I opened the AskRail app to be 100% certain of the contents in each tanker car and confirm how many cars were on the train.”

“The app gave me good detail about what was inside each tank car — specifically, how many gallons of oil were in each. If we had just relied upon the four-digit UN classification number stamped on the outside of the tank cars, it would give us a sense if hazardous materials were inside, but not exact details. And even though we were working with railroad representatives who were on the scene, the AskRail app was able to give us a unique level of detail with the push of a button. That information helped me and my team craft an action plan and mitigate the situation as quickly as possible.”

“HAZMAT response is difficult,” Hensler says. “The scenes can go from very straightforward to very extreme in a matter of seconds. As a HAZMAT technician, you need as much information as you can get, as quickly as possible.”

“I would recommend the AskRail app to other first responders because the information you need in an emergency is right at your fingertips. You don’t need to get information from third parties or rely upon UN classification numbers. AskRail tells you if the railcars are full, if they’re empty and what’s inside — vital pieces of information that really helped us resolve the Watertown incident safely.”

Charles Werner, Charlottesville Fire Chief Emeritus and member of the AAR Public Safety Rail Advisory Committee, echoes Hensler’s view of how powerful the AskRail app is. In fact, Werner has a unique point of view on the app; he worked with Railinc, a technology subsidiary of AAR, to develop the app in 2014.

“The rail industry designed this app in coordination with the International Association of Fire Chiefs specifically to meet first responders’ needs,” Hensler says. “AskRail gives you instantaneous information about what is on the cars and the hazards of those materials, allowing you to rapidly diagnose the situation. It also uses GIS mapping to identify vulnerable areas like hospitals, schools and rivers, and develop an isolation zone that protects the public.”

“Back in 1978, a rail emergency involving carbon disulfide in Charlottesville took us nearly 24 hours to contain. A significant share of that time was spent assessing the scene and identifying exactly what was on that train. If the same thing happened today, I would immediately have a full view of the information I needed to make better decisions.”

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