Officials Break Ground on East Palestine Training Center

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – As a Norfolk Southern train went past on the tracks behind him, CEO Alan Shaw talked about the railroad’s latest project to help the village following the Feb. 3 derailment – a $20 million commitment to build, equip and fund the continual operation of the First Responder Training Center.

Shaw and local and state government officials broke ground Thursday at the site, which is on the property of the former JaSar Recycling businesses between the railroad tracks, Park Avenue and West Taggart Street and visible from the West Street bridge. The new center will offer free training for first responders from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the region.

“[Norfolk Southern’s] donation to this training center demonstrates their willingness to make things right after the train derailment,” said East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick. “Moreover, the lessons we’ve learned from the unfortunate incident will be woven into our training programs. By sharing our experiences, we aim to help others better prepare for similar events and make sure they can learn and benefit from our first-hand knowledge.”

State Sen. Michael Rulli of Salem, R-33rd, credited Drabick with the idea of a fire academy in East Palestine just days following the derailment, when he was hearing from people who were concerned that no one would ever live in East Palestine again. Rulli said Drabick told him that no one knows better how to fight a fire like this one than the ones who were there.

“I saw the video tapes of you guys opening up the door, and it’s literally hell on Earth. It’s literally Dante’s Inferno,” Rulli said. “I don’t know how you did it.”

Shaw said the new facility is a way he can show appreciation to first responders who rushed to that scene on Feb. 3. He said he has been pushing for this project since the beginning, with the hope of finding a location to place the training facility as close to East Palestine as possible. 

Local firefighters and first responders, many from the East Palestine Fire Department, gathered for the groundbreaking for the new First Responder Training Center being built in East Palestine. In back, from left, are Cody Banicki, Dan Mathews, Cody Cole, Josh Sorrell, Jeremiah Cole, Ross McCoy, Kent Chapman, Zach Gorby, Brian Rutledge and Rick Gorby. In front, from left, are Jenn Drabick, Nicole Johannes and East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick.

Currently, Norfolk Southern operates an Operation Awareness and Response program, which trains about 5,000 first responders across 22 states. But in small-town departments, the firefighters are often volunteers who must travel far distances and take time off from their regular jobs to train. Even the temporary training center set up after the derailment in Bellevue, Ohio, is 125 miles from East Palestine.

“First responders are the true heroes in this whole thing,” Shaw said. “First responders are the ones who devoted their careers to protecting the communities in which we all live. And the first responders are the ones who ran to the scene when we had the accident.”

Shaw said Norfolk Southern will train its safety crews in the facility and predicted it will be the new home of the East Palestine Fire Department, which has voiced concerns about needing additional space.

“It’s going to be a facility that draws first responders from all over the region, draws people into this community for multiday training, which means they’re going to stay in this community, which means their going to go to the restaurants, which means they are going to go to the shops and they’re going to contribute to the economic vibrancy of the community,” Shaw said. “Another way to lift the community.”

John Fleps, vice president of safety at Norfolk Southern, described the facility as a place where first responders, not just firefighters, will learn to respond not only to rail disasters but any emergency. While it is still in the design process with the architectural and engineering firm, Arcadis, Fleps predicts the project will include current buildings on the former JaSar property and new construction, although no specific size has been determined for the facility. It will include a burn building for training responders to handle home fires, industrial fires and multistory buildings. There will be a specific focus on transportation emergencies, including railroad emergencies.

“We will have a mock derailment site set up,” Fleps said. “We will be bringing in railcars and have a scene that looks like something they would encounter in the field, and also set up a semitruck response, so if there was a truck on the highway that caught on fire – how to respond to that and what are the hazardous materials that are inside.”

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, right, speaks with Columbiana County Commissioner Tim Weigle, left, and Deputy EMA Director and East Palestine resident Brian Rutledge.

Fleps predicts the facility will be under construction by the end of 2024. After getting it set up, Norfolk will be setting up an endowment for the continued care and operation of the facility.

“This new training center stands as a testament to the village’s leadership, unwavering commitment to safety and progress,” Drabick said. “Our state-of-the-art facility will put firefighters and emergency personnel with the knowledge and tools needed to address any crisis. The training imparted here will be transformative, ensuring swift and effective response times during emergencies.”

Additionally, Drabick predicts the training center will employ instructors and support staff, helping to provide jobs and taxes for the local economy. He anticipates the center will benefit the community for generations to come.

“I know Chief Drabick has grand plans for this facility,” said state Rep. Monica Robb-Blasdel of Columbiana, R-79th. “He has worked with incredible diligence to make sure this training center will serve not just volunteer firefighters but all first responders. In its finished form, the ground that we shovel today will equip firefighters, police, EMT and Hazmat workers to serve Ohioans in a wide range of circumstances.”

Also Thursday morning, plans were announced for reopening East Taggart Street, which has been closed to traffic since the Norfolk Southern train derailment in February. Happening in phases, starting Sept. 25, traffic should be able to resume nighttime travel of the route, the main one for most East Palestine residents traveling to Enon Valley and Chippewa Township, Pennsylvania. At that time, the route will remain closed from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., which Drabick admits is not ideal for businesses.

On Oct. 23, the road is anticipated to reopen with the conclusion of major excavation and soil removal activities. At that point, there will be only periodic traffic stoppages of up to 15 minutes or more during daytime working hours to allow trucks to continue entering and exiting the site. In the first quarter of 2024, intermittent traffic stoppages are expected to continue until the project concludes.

Pictured at top: Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.