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First fire crews on scene of deadly crash practiced for train derailments

DUPONT, Wash. — Firefighters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were the first emergency crews to respond to Monday’s deadly Amtrak crash, likely saving multiple lives as years of training kicked in.

Christopher Bernard, the assistant fire chief of operations for JBLM Fire and Emergency Services, was the lead commander for the firefighters at the scene.

He said eight units showed up quickly, and more were able to arrive than normal because it was a “shift day,” and two shifts overlapped.

“In this instance, the proximity of the crash allowed us to be first on scene,” Bernard said.

JBLM fire crews often respond to emergency calls off base, Bernard said, and have multiple automatic aid agreements with neighboring towns.

But in this instance, it's possible they were better equipped to deal with a situation not often seen by emergency crews. JBLM fire crews have practiced train derailment situations, Bernard said, and they have helped on some in the past.

"We actually do preparation for train derailments," Bernard said. "We've been doing those with Amtrak and BNSF and we've actually had previous history with train derailments at the Mounts Road exit."

Bernard said sometimes JBLM firefighters train for extraneous events that don't seem likely to happen. But in this case, the crew was glad to have worked near the rails before.

"This is one of those rare cases for the people who were here that something we've been preparing for years actually happened," Bernard said. "That's the component of the train, and also the mass, mass casualty. We prepare for those annually here."

Of course, uniformed service members jumped into action to help train crash victims. Many of JBLM fire have war veterans and others who are quite used to fast-paced environments.

"Our personnel that work for JBLM, a large number of them are prior service as well," Bernard said. "We are uniquely qualified to come to a scene like this with a cool head."

Bernard said it's part the proximity to JBLM and its resources, that helped get patients to care so quickly.

"We had 95 patients off the scene in 90 minutes," Bernard said. "It actually made a difference there. Any further away (from the base) and they could have been in a different position."

JBLM was a huge player in the train crash. Bernard points out having the other agencies, such as DuPont and Lacey, so quick to the scene saved lives.

"We had just a tremendous amount of support," Bernard said. "We really came together."