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State Fire Marshal: East Palestine first responders most likely didn’t know hazardous substances were burning

State Fire Marshal: East Palestine first responders most likely didn’t know hazardous substances were burning
Posted at 6:13 PM, Feb 17, 2023

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the call came in about a train derailment, first responders rushed to East Palestine to put out the fire, but the Ohio Fire Marshal said the firefighters probably didn’t know there were extremely hazardous substances burning in the air around them.

Typically in major disasters, firefighters don’t know exactly what they are getting into, and it was "most likely" these first responders didn't know about the chemicals, State Fire Marshal Kevin Reardon told News 5.

"That information you have to get from either the engineer of the train or the conductor," Reardon said.

This is a part of the uncertainty in the job that most firefighters can relate to.

"We really never know what we're going to go into," Cleveland Fire Capt. Dave Telban said. "Sometimes when we get there, we find out it's completely different than what we were told in the first place. So we have to be prepared for anything really."

Telban and Lt. Mike Norman haven't worked on this disaster, but they said have been at plenty of others ones.

"We deal with a lot of dangerous situations," Norman added. "You want to make sure that your equipment is squared away and certainly you're ready to go on whatever response is coming up."

There are different levels of protective gear, depending on if there is a fire versus if there is a hazmat situation, Telban explained.

"A fire is 'hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, let's put it out,'" he said. "A hazmat is 'let's get there and now let's figure out what we're going to do.'"

Running into a situation with toxic chemicals is dangerous, especially without the most protective gear, the firefighters said.

This week, Gov. Mike DeWine said the Norfolk Southern train was not categorized as having high hazardous materials, despite carrying cancer-causing vinyl chloride. According to federal guidelines, it didn't have to be because most of the railcars were not carrying hazardous materials.

News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau asked DeWine during a press conference Friday if learning the train was carrying toxic materials would have changed anything.

"We cannot, because of federal preemption, we cannot prohibit them from coming into the state of Ohio," the governor responded. "But what we can do is know that and to... notify our fire department, EMS people all the way along the route that, 'hey, this is what it's carrying."

The notification of the material doesn't solve the problem, he said, but it can help give people at least some notice.

View video of Friday's news conference with DeWine:

Gov. DeWine press conference on East Palestine

RELATED: Gov. DeWine announces health clinic for East Palestine residents, says air, water still testing safe

"It would be great to know what we're getting into," Telban agreed. "If you buy a lottery ticket, you prefer the winning numbers before you bought the ticket, too. But in our line of work, that doesn't always happen."

This is especially important since the firefighters weren't even in hazmat suits, Reardon said.

"Health is a long-term thing," the fire marshal said. "It's not something we just assess once and forget about it."

The state will continue to monitor the safety of the first responders and residents of East Palestine, Reardon added.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.