Industry and emergency responders answered that question Wednesday by responding to a mock disaster near Wells Enterprises' Rail Receiving Center, south of 18th Street Southwest.
The test of plans started when Le Mars Police and Fire-Rescue departments received emergency radio communication of a traffic accident involving a car and a railroad tank car at 6:57 p.m.
Responding to a test
The car struck the train car, causing the contents to be released into the air, according to the scenario for the training.
Injuries were unknown when emergency responders were alerted to the accident, but a red sign on the outside of the railroad car let responders know the tanker contained propane.
"Red 3 on the hazmat card," Le Mars Fire-Rescue Chief David Schipper told fire-rescue department members who were responding to the training exercise.
Three minutes later there was new information: the "victim" inside the car was conscious.
"We also had a chemical release of the propane so we activated Wells Enterprises' hazmat team since it was on their property," said Schipper.
Schipper said getting the person out of the vehicle was the first step for responders because "lives are first and foremost."
A new member of the fire-rescue department, Jon Bolkema, of Le Mars, was the "victim" rescued by his fellow firefighters.
Other members of the department sprayed water trailer simulating a railroad tanker with propane escaping from the top.
At the same time, Le Mars police officers were stopping anyone who didn't have a reason to be in the area from entering from nearby streets.
Providing information about a disaster is another role police fulfill at the direction of whoever is in charge at a disaster scene, said Stuart Dekkenga, Le Mars Police Chief.
"We notify people at nearby businesses or residences about what is going on and what precautions to take," Dekkenga said.
For Wednesday's test of preparedness, nearby businesses had been alerted to the disaster training and were asked to consider what steps to take if the mock accident were real.
The police involvement was outside the perimeter of the accident and duties are carried out by coordinating with whoever is in command at the disaster area.
The direction came from the fire-rescue chief and Wells officials Wednesday, Dekkenga explained.
Police notified businesses to the south and southeast up to two blocks away based on wind direction at the time of the "accident," Schipper said.
"They secured streets in those areas until we were sure we had no vapors that drifted down wind," Schipper said.
Training with business partners
The simulated accident was also a test of training at Wells.
"We worked with Wells hazmat team which is certified for decontamination so they actually set up the decontamination line and decontaminated our firefighters tonight," Schipper said.
Approximately 25 people from Wells' participated, according to Dave Smetter, vice president of corporate and integrated marketing communications for Wells.
"Wells' main goal was to test our hazmat response, but along with that there are representatives from our security, safety, environmental and grounds crews because they all operate as an integrated unit, depending on what type of response is needed or what the incident is," Smetter said.
As Le Mars' largest employer, Wells usually has two tabletop exercises a year to test planning for emergencies or disasters and also a drill where planning is tested harder, he said.
If a scenario Wells staff prepares for requires local emergency groups, they're asked to be involved, Smetter said.
"We've done a couple of those and can't say enough about the great working relationship we have with the city and fire-rescue department and police departments," he said. "They have their own plans as well and since we're such a big part of the community we have to have a good working relationship with them."
He said the knowledge Dekkenga and Schipper have has enhanced Wells' planning for emergencies.
Another company contributing to the disaster training Wednesday was Union Pacific (UP) Railroad, of Omaha, Neb.
The trailed UP provided for the training was equipped with controls and valves emergency responders would work with in an actual emergency.
A UP representative fulfilled the role of a trainmaster Wednesday.
"We worked with the trainmaster to make sure we knew the exact product we were dealing with and how much product was in the train car," Schipper explained.
The answer was 128 tons of propane.
Firefighters then went to the top of the UP training equipment to look at valves to shut down and cap the 'leaking' propane, he added.
Wells staff worked with firefighters who went into the nearby Wells' building for another part of the disaster preparedness test.
"We sent people into the building to see if we had any vapors that got into that building so we could ventilate that building from having any explosions," Schipper said of the training test.
Plymouth County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Junge prepared notes about the scenario as an evaluator to offer an outside set of eyes and ears for a review of the hazmat drill, Schipper said.
The need to prepare for a possible train accident was apparent as trains traveled along nearby crossings twice during the first half of the two-hour training exercise.
Of the four accidents involving vehicles and trains in Plymouth County in the last eight weeks, Schipper said three have occurred in Le Mars.
Dr. Rudolph Daniels, a representative from Operation Lifesaver, took photos of the training.
Operation Lifesaver is a rail safety education program.
Every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train, according to the Operation Lifesaver website.
Daniels will provide free presentations on vehicle or pedestrian railroad safety to service clubs, social/religious groups and for school bus and other specialty drivers.
He may be contacted at 712-276-3185.
Reviewing to prepare
The groups involved in the training Wednesday will meet to review what happened during the test of their planning, both Schipper and Smetter said.
"We always want to have an eye on continuous improvement in everything we do," Smetter said. "But we certainty want those plans, when something actually happens, to be not only practiced but understood by the people who have to execute them."
The training helps put names and faces together and makes sure things go as smoothly as possible if the training situation Wednesday becomes a real situation in the future, Schipper said.
"It allows us to see each other's capability and equipment and working together with each other, we kind of learn each other's strong and weak points," he said. "Hopefully we can improve on those things which is the main thing so that, God forbid, if this is a real situation, things go as smoothly and as safely as they possibly can."