In the early hours of Oct. 10, 2018, firefighters battling a two-alarm commercial fire at Saeed Bro Tires, at 3900 Main Street, in Oakley, heard a sound they were not expecting – the blaring horn of a fast-moving train approaching their location from the west.
In an instant, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train roared past the still-burning building that was adjacent to a railroad right of way and a pair of tracks. A report recently completed by the Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ConFire) states that six firefighters conducting operations behind the tire store avoided being struck by the narrowest of margins.
The ConFire investigation concluded that miscommunication between the Contra Costa Regional Fire Communication Center (CCRFCC) and a representative of BNSF played a role in the incident and the presence of a stopped BNSF train near the fire location when the incident started complicated communications. The report also made several recommendations developed in conjunction with BNSF to improve firefighter safety when working in close proximity to rail lines.
“We are glad and fortunate no one from our neighboring agency nor our own were hurt because of this issue,” said Fire Chief Brian Helmick of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD). “This report will help our agency re-examine how we operate in the vicinity of train tracks and make the necessary safety changes to ensure that this does not happen again.”
It was shortly after 2 a.m. when ECCFPD Engine 53 was dispatched to the Oakley address for an exterior fire, and Confire Engine 88 was quickly added to the call. At 2:17 a.m., the incident was upgraded to a commercial structure fire, and two minutes later, Engine 53 arrived on scene and reported that a large exterior fire had extended to commercial building.
At 2:22 a.m., the conductor of a BNSF train stopped on the tracks adjacent to the burning building contacted the CCRFCC to ask if the train was in danger. A minute later, the dispatch center told Engine 53 that “the train company is asking if they need to shut down the tracks” and the radio operator responded affirmatively. That information was then relayed to the BNSF conductor who acknowledged the need and continued to press for information regarding his train.
The report states, “Ultimately, the radio operator was under the impression that (BNSF) was inquiring to shut down the tracks, but, in fact, the BNSF conductor only called to inquire about his specific train.”
The dispatcher reiterated the need to stop rail traffic with the conductor, who again acknowledged the dispatcher’s concerns, and again, did not indicate he would take any steps to do so. He did, however, attempt to clarify his role and stated that he was “not the company.” According to the report, BNSF took no action to slow the trains until requested to do so at a later time.
“Part of the communication error was (that) nothing ever made it to BNSF’s dispatching center to shut down the line, either from our dispatch center or from BNSF employees,” said ECCFPD Battalion Chief Ross Macumber.
BNSF did not respond to a request for comment prior to press time.
A second communication error occurred between Engine 53 and the Oakley Police Department (OPD). The report states that the captain of Engine 53 believed that OPD had advised BNSF personnel of the need to shut down the tracks. That conversation did not occur. OPD was only asked to determine the distance between the burning building and the parked train, which they did. That information was provided to the incident commander and relayed to the conductor. It was determined that the train was in no danger and did not need to move.
As the exchange between CCRFCC and BNSF was ongoing, a second alarm was added and Confire Engines 88 and 81 were assigned to fight the fire from the rear of the building with only 20 to 30 feet separating the building from the tracks. Operations were established on and around the train tracks and continued for approximately two hours until the captain from Engine 88 observed lights approaching the scene.
He ordered the crews to begin clearing the scene, then realized a train was approaching at a high rate of speed. The reports states that crews began to exit the tracks and remove equipment with much higher urgency and concludes that firefighters escaped the tracks with two or three seconds to spare. There were no injuries and no equipment was damaged.
The report offers several recommendations for improving safety when conducting operations in close proximity to rail lines. CCRFCC will now communicate directly with a railway’s resource operations center to confirm the status of traffic on a line. Additionally, a safety officer will be established for any incident working on or near a railway, and markers will be placed on the tracks at a specified distance from an incident in each direction to warn approaching trains of fire activity.
“It’s a very complex situation in terms of ownership and operators,” said Steve Hill ConFire public information officer. “There was definitely a communication breakdown. We learned we can’t take anything for granted. It’s clearly a life-and-death situation. We thought we were talking to someone who was talking on behalf of the rail line and operators, and (the conductor) was just talking about his train. Fortunately, we dodged a bullet and it didn’t cause any injuries or worse. But that was a pretty big realization for us.”