TRB Special Report 239 - Hazardous Materials Shipment Information For Emergency Response examines the feasibility and necessity of a central reporting system and computerized telecommunications data center that is capable of receiving, storing, and retrieving data concerning all daily shipments of hazardous materials, and that can provide information to facilitate responses to accidents and incidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials.
Federal law defines a hazardous material as any substance or material in a quantity and form that may pose an unreasonable risk to health, safety, or property when transported in commerce. Thousands of materials are classified as hazardous, and tens of thousands of firms are involved in their movement. The number of daily movements of these materials is not known with precision but is estimated to exceed 800,000. The risks posed by such commodities vary widely depending on the material itself, its packaging, and the mode and route selected for its movement.
Firefighters and police regularly respond to incidents involving the release or threat of release of hazardous materials in transport. Minimizing the danger of injury and other costs of such events requires knowledge of the materials so that appropriate firefighting and other mitigation measures can be taken and decisions made regarding evacuation or traffic diversion. In some cases, emergency responders are unable to determine the appropriate response because information about the hazardous material in question is not complete or has been obscured or lost as a result of a crash.
The committee that produced this report reviewed the existing system that involved providing placards on vehicles and using then-current information sources. The committee found the system to be wanting but stopped short of recommending the centralized reporting and monitoring system it was asked to consider. Review of a sample of crashes indicated that most of the information problems faced by emergency responders would probably not be resolved by the envisioned system until many other issues had been addressed. Moreover, many daunting institutional and technical impediments would have to be overcome before a nationwide information system would be operational and cost-effective.
The committee therefore recommended incremental improvements to the existing system, involving more rigorous monitoring and enforcement, changes in regulations, improved training, and advanced technologies. USDOT was encouraged to begin deploying and evaluating prototype reporting systems to determine their efficacy, with the expectation that more automated information systems would become increasingly feasible and cost-effective over time.
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