I would recommend the AskRail app to other first responders because the information you need in an emergency is right at your fingertips.

Jason Hensler, Former Engineer Crew Member

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, a former engine crew member in the Clyman, Wisconsin, fire department and member of the Dodge County Hazardous Materials (hazmat) Response Team, was one of the first emergency responders on the scene.

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  Hensler and other first responders, no fires or injuries were reported.

Here is Hensler’s story.

Driving to the incident, I was concerned because I know the community pretty well, and I knew that there are a large number of homes and a park relatively close to the derailed train,” Hensler said. “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. 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.

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

Explore AskRail Further

Charles Werner, a former fire chief who helped develop the app in 2014, and Forrest Wieder, general manager of the Security and Emergency Response Training Center, discuss the real-life benefits of the app on the Urgent Management Podcast.

“Back in 1978, a rail emergency involving carbon disulfide in Charlottesville took us nearly 24 hours to contain,” Werner told the Urgent Communications Podcast. “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. AskRail enables us to shrink this process from hours to minutes or even seconds.”