How an App Helps First Responders Save Lives
Learn how the AskRail mobile app saves lives by showing first responders which train cars have hazardous materials in the event of a crash or emergency.
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Rail transportation in the United States consists primarily of freight shipments, while passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries. Yet it's an area where technology is quietly transforming the industry and those that work within it.
When you think of technology and transport, you're probably envisioning autonomous vehicles, drones, and app connected hire bikes. But there's a layer of technology being created that provides life-changing and indeed, life-saving analytics.
AskRail is a mobile app developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Association of American Railroads. It aggregates big data to provide first responders with instantaneous access to critical, real-time scene assessment tools in the event of a train accident, providing first responders and firefighters with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency.
The app is the brainchild of Rail Inc, who began as an information technology department within the Association of American Railroads (AAR), and has since evolved to meet the dynamic information needs of the railroad industry. The company was established as a wholly-owned, for-profit subsidiary of the AAR in 1999 and their products include the Umler® system, a data repository for nearly 2 million pieces of rail equipment, to the Car Hire Rate Negotiation Self-Service application, which helps streamline the car hire process, to the Equipment Health Management System, which communicates the condition of railroad equipment and sends alerts when repairs are needed. I spoke to the director, Steve Hinkson to find out more. Steve explained that:
"AskRail is the third level of defense. The primary person you should go to in the event of an incident is the conductor or the engineer. If this is not possible, AskRail provides information from the emergency publication guide of the hazmat industry that including features around mapping and isolation zones that a first responder can really do to manage the incident until a full crew can show up."
The app provides first responders and firefighters with the ability to search the contents of every rail car involved in a derailment for potentially hazardous, explosive, or flammable materials at the touch of their fingers. This includes step-by-step instructions on how to confine and extinguish various hazardous materials, including crude oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids and updated maps that include the locations of community assets like hospitals, schools, and rivers within a half-mile of the accident. The substance is identified via a code that is printed on the side of the cargo carriage that is entered into the app.
Prior to the app's creation, this kind of information wasn't even available digitally, Steve explained, "There was a book that emergency response cars kept with them in the truck or vehicle."
In terms of UX, one of the main priorities of the app developers was the ability to limit the number of clicks it takes to get the most pertinent information. "We actually got it out there in front of a community. We finally got down to the shortest route to go to the minute you get into the app, you don't have to do a log in or an ID ,it just literally is just like any app that you download from the store, you hit it it comes you right away to put a car initial number, do a search, you’re up there looking at information"
Since the app's creation over 20k first responders have registered with the app and undergone training on its use. According to Steve:
"The feedback we've gotten, it's just incredible. Everybody of those groups like the National Association of Fire Chiefs who were involved in the development, tell us it is that single point information at your fingertips that everything you want to prepare yourself to respond appropriately"
Whilst humans made change the way they transport themselves, the use of traditional industries such as railway freight to transport cargo and hazardous goods will take a lot longer. An accident can be deadly so the need for technology that can predict and respond to these risks is essential.
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