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When a fire engine or ambulance is en route to a call, just a few minutes, or even seconds, can be the difference between life and death.
That's why, several months ago, when cargo trains began blocking intersections in Spartanburg more frequently and for longer periods of time, Spartanburg Fire Chief Marion Blackwell took note.
Blackwell said he first reached out in October to Norfolk Southern Railway, which operates the trains and crossings, when trains began regularly blocking crossings at Magnolia, Church and Arch streets, often all at once and for hours at a time. Blackwell said that on several occasions, the trains have delayed response times, though no one has seriously been harmed yet as a result.
"If we have a working structure fire, where we actually have a building that is on fire, that can make a difference in how much damage that occurs to the building, or even, if someone is unfortunately trapped in the building, it could make the difference between a successful rescue and an unsuccessful rescue," he said. "So, yeah, we are concerned with it."
After reaching out to the railroad several times, Blackwell was told that because the S.C. Inland Port in Greer, a cargo-transfer hub for trucks and trains, has become more active recently -- in part because of increased production from the nearby BMW plant -- trains have been forced to wait in Spartanburg.
Blackwell said he's voiced his concerns to local and regional levels of the company, without much success.
"The stuff that started on the 24th (of October) was when I was dealing with the local yard master, who handles the local traffic," Blackwell said. "Finally, when he got where he wouldn't return my calls, that's when we elevated it up... The information we got was it's going to be a while."
Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for the railroad, said Norfolk Southern representatives have met with Spartanburg emergency responders multiple times and are willing to continue communicating with them.
Mutual aid agreements with nearby fire departments and satellite stations on opposite sides of the railroad track help the Spartanburg Fire Department get first responders to emergencies quickly, Blackwell said, but support crews that might be crucial to addressing a fire could be delayed when it matters most.
On the other hand, the Una Fire Department, a smaller agency just outside the city staffed primarily by volunteers, doesn't have any mutual aid agreements, said Jeff Hadden, the department's chief. Hadden said the delays haven't affected any response times yet, but he's worried they will.
"It hasn't yet, but it could," he said. "In a life-or-death situation, those three or four extra minutes that it takes us to get there could cost somebody their life. But again, we're dealing with the railroad, and they've got a lot more money than we do, so what are you going to do?"
Hadden said since he and residents in the area started reaching out to Norfolk Southern and the state Department of Transportation, he's noticed all three crossings have been at blocked at the same time less often, but not enough to set his mind at ease.
"I can't say that they have not worked with us, because they have," he said.
Terpay said construction is underway at the Inland Port to alleviate the bottlenecks and is scheduled to be completed in August. Until then, she said, the railroad is doing what it can to keep traffic jams to a minimum.
"We (are) expediting moving the cars off the train in Spartanburg as quickly as possible," she wrote in an email.
If blocked crossings become a problem for emergency responders, the railroad directs them to call a number to have the cars moved. But that isn't much help when firefighters are responding to a call, Blackwell said.
"We even asked if they could break the train and open the crossing up and they said, 'Oh, we will if you call us and it's an emergency,'" he said. "But if we wait until an emergency and call them, it's too late, so that's not a solution for us."
Blackwell said he's been persistent in making his concerns known and has been discouraged by the response.
"Basically, we were told that the railroads were here before the city and they're a federal jurisdiction and, while they sympathize with our problems, it's not their problem," he said.
This article first appeared on www.firehouse.com
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