State Fire Marshal: First responders likely didn’t know hazardous substances were burning

By: - February 21, 2023 4:50 am

State Fire Marshal: East Palestine first responders most likely didn’t know hazardous substances were burning. Photo by WEWS.

The following article was originally published on and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.


When the call came in about a train derailment, first responders rushed to East Palestine to put out the fire, but the Ohio Fire Marshal said the firefighters probably didn’t know there were extremely hazardous substances burning in the air around them.

Typically in major disasters, firefighters don’t know exactly what they are getting into, and it was “most likely” these first responders didn’t know about the chemicals, State Fire Marshal Kevin Reardon told OCJ/WEWS.

“That information you have to get from either the engineer of the train or the conductor,” Reardon said.

This is a part of the uncertainty in the job that most firefighters can relate to.

“We really never know what we’re going to go into,” Cleveland Fire Capt. Dave Telban said. “Sometimes when we get there, we find out it’s completely different than what we were told in the first place. So we have to be prepared for anything really.”

Telban and Lt. Mike Norman haven’t worked on this disaster, but they said have been at plenty of others ones.

“We deal with a lot of dangerous situations,” Norman added. “You want to make sure that your equipment is squared away and certainly you’re ready to go on whatever response is coming up.”

There are different levels of protective gear, depending on if there is a fire versus if there is a hazmat situation, Telban explained.

“A fire is ‘hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, let’s put it out,'” he said. “A hazmat is ‘let’s get there and now let’s figure out what we’re going to do.'”

Running into a situation with toxic chemicals is dangerous, especially without the most protective gear, the firefighters said.

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine said the Norfolk Southern train was not categorized as having high hazardous materials, despite carrying cancer-causing vinyl chloride. According to federal guidelines, it didn’t have to be because most of the railcars were not carrying hazardous materials.

OCJ/WEWSStatehouse reporter Morgan Trau asked DeWine during a press conference last Friday if learning the train was carrying toxic materials would have changed anything.

“We cannot, because of federal preemption, we cannot prohibit them from coming into the state of Ohio,” the governor responded. “But what we can do is know that and to… notify our fire department, EMS people all the way along the route that, ‘hey, this is what it’s carrying.”

The notification of the material doesn’t solve the problem, he said, but it can help give people at least some notice.

View video of Friday’s news conference with DeWine:


“It would be great to know what we’re getting into,” Telban agreed. “If you buy a lottery ticket, you prefer the winning numbers before you bought the ticket, too. But in our line of work, that doesn’t always happen.”

This is especially important since the firefighters weren’t even in hazmat suits, Reardon said.

“Health is a long-term thing,” the fire marshal said. “It’s not something we just assess once and forget about it.”

The state will continue to monitor the safety of the first responders and residents of East Palestine, Reardon added.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.



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Morgan Trau
Morgan Trau

Morgan Trau is a political reporter and multimedia journalist based out of the WEWS Columbus Bureau. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Trau has previously worked as an investigative, political and fact-checking reporter in Grand Rapids, Mich. at WZZM-TV; a reporter and MMJ in Spokane, Wash. at KREM-TV and has interned at 60 Minutes and worked for CBS Interactive and PBS NewsHour.