When drivers are stopped by a train in Newton, they may use that time to check their phones, adjust their radios, or talk to a passenger. They probably don't pay much attention to the train cars passing in front of them — or think about what materials those train cars may be carrying.

Hazardous materials regularly pass through Newton by highway and rail as part of the industrial process. To help officials get a better idea of what those materials are, Harvey County is being surveyed as part of a south-central Kansas Hazardous Materials Commodity Flow Study funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The study is examining the types of hazardous materials passing through the region by rail, road, air, etc.

"We know that there is a tremendous amount of hazardous materials being transported every day," said Newton Fire/EMS Chief Mark Willis. "This just gives us a better idea, an opportunity to analyze."

Harvey County Emergency Management coordinator Lon Buller said the county is still waiting for the final results from the study, which he hopes will help the county plan responses to possible incidents.

The volume of rail and interstate traffic in the region contributes to the risk for an incident. Common hazardous materials that come through Harvey County include petrochemicals, carbon fuels, liquid propane gas, oil and natural gas. Local industries also may use volatile materials in their production processes.

Prepared to respond

Because major railways and highways cut directly through the city of Newton, Willis said it's important for emergency responders to have a plan to respond in a rapid and efficient manner; isolate the hazard; and evacuate the public if needed or instruct them to shelter in place.

However, the technology, training and equipment required for a proper response to a hazmat incident can be challenging for smaller counties like Harvey County. The most expensive, safest hazmat suits cost $1,000 each and expire after a certain amount of time. Thankfully, Harvey County would be able to receive mutual aid from nearby units such as Wichita and Sedgwick County.

"The relationships we develop with other agencies just become so important in times of major incidents," Willis said.

In the past, there have been several small derailments in the area; transportation accidents on the highway involving hazardous materials; and industrial hazmat spills or fires, such as a major fire at a biodiesel plant, Green Energy Products, in Sedgwick last summer.

Building relationships

Willis said Newton Fire/EMS conducts training exercises with BNSF, such as practicing how to respond to a leaking tank car. The organizations work together to improve safety.

"We've always had a very good relationship with BNSF, as far as having a good idea of what's going through on a daily basis," Willis said.

Another key group is the Local Emergency Planning Committee, which is made up of representatives from local governments, health care organizations, emergency responders and more. Willis said having an LEPC promotes networking and communication before a disaster strikes and helps everyone prepare to respond and work together.

"The time to be figuring that stuff out isn't the time when we're figuring out how much of the city to evacuate," Willis said.

In the event of a hazmat incident, he advises the public to be aware of what's going on and to take official evacuation or shelter orders seriously.

"We don't make those orders without very good reason," he said.