Wichita Millions of tons of hazardous materials roll across Kansas by truck and train this year, and the burgeoning ethanol industry will add not only to the cargo but also to the potential for a catastrophe created by one bad accident.
Now, emergency crews throughout the state are getting special training from the transportation industry on responding to chemical spills, fires and other mishaps involving trains and trucks.
A group called TransCAER - Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response - is holding regional disaster training sessions in 10 Kansas communities this month and next. A three-day session in Wichita ended Friday.
"We're learning about the construction of the trucks, how the rail cars operate, and it's really valuable information we need to help protect the public," said Capt. Brian Hoy of the Wichita Fire Department.
Hoy and colleagues from as far away as Parsons learned Friday where to find and how to operate shut-off valves and pressure valves, and where to most likely find leaks at an accident scene.
"What makes this different from other kinds of training is that it offers hands-on experience with the equipment," said Randy Duncan, director of Sedgwick County emergency management.
Actually operating the shut-off valves and seeing the equipment before an emergency gives those who respond familiarity before a crisis, trainers say.
"If they can hold it and shake it, it helps," said John Prather, a trainer for the trucking industry from Groendyke Transport.
A Sedgwick County report showed more than 20,000 rail cars, each containing 100,000 pounds of hazardous material, roll through Mulvane each year.
More than 100 million tons of toxic and dangerous material come through the Wichita area in trucks.
It's more likely Wichita would see a catastrophe from a chemical accident than a terrorist attack.
"And it would be very serious," said Bryon McNeil, a trauma doctor at Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus who specializes in biological and chemical emergencies.
Ethanol was a focus of this week's training.
Trainers Prather and Brock Lowman of BNSF Railroad said the production of the alternative fuel is expected to dramatically increase in states such as Kansas and Iowa in the coming years.
"It's not the kind of fuel that you can transport by pipeline," Prather said. "Mostly it will be carried by rail or truck."
Ethanol brings new dangers.
"It's highly flammable and it's more volatile than diesel fuel," said McNeil, the Via Christi physician. "You could see explosions, and the burns and blunt-force traumas that come with that. You could see more severe burns, and more of them."
Firefighters also need different materials and methods to fight an ethanol fire.
Said Hoy of the Wichita Fire Department: "We've heard a lot about ethanol. A lot."