How to Manage a Train Wreck and other ‘Big Ones’

By Rick Edinger

Recent events including the earthquake in Turkey and the train derailment in Ohio should serve to remind public safety organizations that significant incidents can strike anywhere at any time. These are not limited to big cities or certain geographic areas.

In the American fire service, such events are referred to as “the big one”. These are low frequency, high consequence incidents that many communities, and emergency responders, thankfully may only experience once in a lifetime. For potential incident commanders, there are some things to expect and prepare for.

Initial incident management — unless you’re in a large, metropolitan area with ample and readily available incident management resources — the first incident commander is going to be overwhelmed. There will be many critical decisions to make and often not enough resources to meet the primary objectives and complete task assignments. Prioritizing actions based on available resources will be difficult but necessary.

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The IC will be processing information and communications from multiple sources. Sorting out and prioritizing all this information and turning that into tactical decision-making will be stressful.

Notable is that some ICs will “lock up” and have difficulty making critical and timely decisions. Some call this incident command “brain freeze”. Additionally, we know from experience and science that ICs who are multi-tasking due to a lack of incident support resources are not very effective, and bad outcomes can be expected.

The key is to anticipate and prepare for this possibility.

Emergency services organizations can practice managing large scale incidents using training, simulations and exercises. If you are in a smaller organization with limited resources, develop a support plan to get help.

Also Read: Two Derailments in 10 Days Show Need for Hazmat Rail Training

Incident management and incident support teams exist throughout the United States for this very reason. Know and anticipate that if you’re managing an incident of major consequence, effective incident management assistance in the form of state and federal emergency management assets can be hours to more than a day away depending on your location.


Most importantly, don’t try to manage the incident yourself. Begin building out the general staff (Operations, Planning, Logistics and Finance) and fill the command staff positions as quickly as possible. And use a risk-based response approach to prioritize incident objectives, task assignments and resources. This is not a routine incident and won’t be controlled soon; mentally prepare for the long haul.


Speaking of the long haul, the old saying is that an Army travels on its stomach. That’s a euphemism for logistics. When rescues need to be made and exposures protected to save lives and property, dedicating resources to Operations is the proper thing to do. However, in doing so, the need to address logistical support can take a back seat.

Without proper logistical support, operational needs will quickly outstrip available resources and the incident will bog down. For complex incidents, the scale of the logistical support needs to match the operational footprint. ICs are often frustrated when logistics can’t be assembled or acquired quickly enough to effectively support continued, large-scale operations. But logistics needs time to ramp up and proper support to be effective.

After developing the initial incident action plan and deploying operational resources, the IC needs to think logistics. Based on the scale and anticipated length of the incident, proper support planning must occur. This is the responsibility of the logistics section chief, and the sooner the IC can hand these tasks off, the better.

In terms of logistical support, think big. Too often precious time and effort are spent reactively scaling up logistics due to a lack of vision in terms of the size, complexity and anticipated length of incident operations and recovery. Think big early to avoid rework later. Last, logistics needs to be financed. Don’t forget that a large-scale logistics operation will need to be procured and paid for. Your finance section chief needs to be stood up to assist.


Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” Large-scale incidents can’t be managed long term from the back of a chief’s buggy. Yes, that may be the initial incident command post, but incidents of significant size and complexity need appropriate planning support to ensure that the incident is properly managed.

It is the responsibility of the planning section chief to guide these efforts. Based on input from the IC and Operations, a formal incident action plan needs to be developed and maintained to support the operation and communicate critical elements to the entire incident management team and emergency responders. Without this planning, those managing and supporting the incident don’t have a roadmap for their use. Mistakes can and will result.

Incident Support and Communications

As noted, an IC can’t do everything themselves. They need a support team around them. The command staff, consisting of a safety officer, liaison officer and public information officer are critical resources to assist the IC in managing a large-scale incident.

Ensuring safe operations for responders and the public is of paramount importance and a properly trained and dedicated safety officer should be laser-focused on this aspect of incident operations. Incident safety should be first and foremost at the front of the incident management team’s mind.

Large-scale incidents don’t operate in a vacuum. There will likely be multiple agencies that are participating in primary or supporting roles. The IC needs a dedicated position to manage interactions with these agencies and the liaison officer’s role is critical in herding all these cats. Interagency communications are vital to coordinating efforts and without a liaison officer this task falls back to the IC who has plenty else to do without this on their plate as well.

In today’s world of constant, multi-source communications, 24/7 news cycles, mobile phones, civilian drones and other information-sharing methodologies, the PIO has become a critical player in the command staff.The recent East Palestine, Ohio railcar derailment is a textbook example of the need to provide accurate and timely communications to those affected by the incident, elected officials and the media. 

Competing media agendas and a lack of objective reporting have made the PIO’s job more difficult, but nothing will cast a bad light on an incident more than a lack of communications.

Low-frequency, high-consequence incidents can leave a lasting impact on people, communities and emergency responders. Poor incident management practices only serve to make a bad situation worse and can harm the reputations of organizations and individuals. Effective incident management requires planning, training and practice to be successful. Paying attention to this need prior to “the big one” is critical for successful and safe emergency operations.

About the AuthorRick Edinger is a retired deputy fire chief and chairman of NFPA Hazardous Materials/WMD Response Standards Committee. To learn more, follow Chief Edinger on LinkedIn.

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