As the first anniversary of the 2023 East Palestine, Ohio Train derailment approaches, the ATDA wishes to recognize member Linda Hickey for her efforts in the moments that followed the disaster. Hickey, a Train Dispatcher from the NS System Committee, quickly acted to coordinate emergency response to the incident site and protect those impacted. Although she was not in position to prevent the terrible events that occurred, her exemplary performance undoubtedly prevented additional harm. The ATDA thanks her for working to help others in the midst of tragedy and for exemplifying the professionalism that makes Train Dispatchers an indispensable component of safer rail transportation.
The following conversation with member Hickey offers insight into what it was like as she acted in the wake of the derailment and what makes her job so important, even when everything goes wrong:
ATDA: As the dispatcher who responded to the East Palestine disaster, what was going through your mind as the events unfolded?
Hickey: My first thought was serious concern for keeping the community as safe as possible and protecting our crews. Safety and containment are a top priority, but you’re always thinking about protecting people. To be honest, at that moment I wished I had the hand of God to reach out and stop this, but of course I couldn’t. At that point, it was all about lessening the impact.
ATDA: Your response to the incident has been described as exemplary. Can you talk a little about why you were able to respond effectively?
Hickey: Well, having been out on that territory, knowing the people involved. That kept it real to me and it was a reminder that these were actual human lives at stake. As a train dispatcher, as a person on the desk who knows the people involved, it provides a human urgency that can’t be replaced. Automated systems and Artificial Intelligence programs don’t care about human life. They only care about the next line of code. I have nearly 15 years of experience that prepared me for that moment.
ATDA: Taking that further, what is it that makes Train Dispatchers so important as the first line of response for rail incidents?
Hickey: The fact that we are there. We are listening to what’s happening and we pick up on several things at once from our experience that others simply wouldn’t. Railroading, especially in the moments incidents happen, is so complex. We are able to sort through the mess of several people talking at once, alarms going off, people competing for attention. We understand how to prioritize and act in a way that makes a difference.
ATDA: If you could share one piece of advice with other Dispatchers who may be faced with responding to a similar event?
Hickey: Never forget that your job does matter. The fact that you’re listening, you’re there, and you’re responding to the calls for help. Whatever those may be, you’re the first responder. Your quick actions may make a huge difference in the outcome. That doesn’t mean you can prevent every incident, but our people need us to step up when those things happen.
ATDA: What about those who may not be familiar with the job of a Train Dispatcher? What would you say to them about the importance of what we do?
Hickey: The job is very complex, very complicated, very high pressure. But we Train Dispatchers are good at what we do and we’re the right ones for the job of protecting America’s railroads.