Emergency Response

Explosive train derailments such as that in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada burn up to three days. Fire Chief Jim Appleton, first on scene at the Mosier, Oregon derailment, stresses the importance of water availability when fighting oil train fires, “The heat of these fires is so intense, foam simply dissipates. Water is needed to cool the tankers before foam can be used.”

The Federal government is responsible for reducing public risk from exposure to hazardous materials.  This includes technical guidance, legislated standards and procedures, and providing States with access to data about chemical releases and training.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has the lead role for coordinating civil emergency response planning and disaster response.  FEMA’s hazardous materials program is largely one of providing guidance, technical assistance, information, and training.  For Title III (below) reporting and enforcement activities, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the key Federal agency:  it maintains the national toxic chemical inventory, publishes regulations concerning hazardous materials, reports on the status of various emergency systems, conducts training, and assists with hazardous materials site identification and investigation.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (Title III) – On October 17, 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, aka SARA, was signed into law.  The third part of SARA is Title III:  The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.  This legislation ensures the public’s right to obtain information about toxic releases from facilities in their own communities.  As the public and its Congressional representatives became more aware of the increasing use of hazardous materials and the corresponding increase in the number of accidents, pressure grew for better information at the local level.  The single incident that is credited with raising the level of concern to the point that such a law could be passed occurred in Bhopal, India, where a release of methyl isocyanate killed at least 1,700 people and injured thousands more.

Under Title III, each State governor must appoint a State Emergency Response Commission (SERC).  These commissions provide leadership to ensure that an emergency planning and implementation structure is developed at the local level and to review plans developed by communities.  In addition, the SERCs provide training and technical assistance to local communities.  In general, the burden of funding for training and information management for Title III recordkeeping falls at the State and local level.  Regulating the transportation of hazardous materials within State borders is a State responsibility, but HHFTs are under ministerial authority of the federal government and are subject to preemption.

Docket No. PHMSA-2014-0105 (HM-251B) – The U.S. Transportation Department issued final rules requiring railroads to develop oil spill response plans and to disclose details of shipments to states and tribal governments.  Railroads are required to establish geographic response zones and to ensure that personnel and equipment are staged and prepared to respond in the event of an accident.

Local government develops emergency plans for disasters involving hazardous substances, including identifying the resources available in an emergency (such as trained personnel and specialized equipment) and ensuring planning coordination among responding groups.  

The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) must collect and store information from the rail industry and make that information available to the public, just as it does for hazardous materials facilities under Title III.

The interactive web-based course, An Introduction to Hazardous Materials, is available to the public at no cost on FEMA’s website along with many other courses as part of the Emergency Management Institute’s Independent Study Program.



Is-5.a: An Introduction to Hazardous Materials.” FEMA Training, Federal Emergency Management Agency | Emergency Management Institute, 31 Oct. 2013, training.fema.gov/is/courseoverview.aspx?code=IS-5.a.