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BNSF conducts safety sessions for emergency responders in Dickinson

DICKINSON, N.D. – Coal, ethanol, grain. It all gets shipped across the state by rail.

But it’s the hundreds of trains carrying crude oil that have caught the attention of officials and community members concerned, not only with the rapid increase in activity, but with the potential safety issues attached with it.

Law enforcement and emergency responders received hands-on training in preparing for and handling a crude oil incident Wednesday night in Dickinson, one of several trainings BNSF Railway will host across the state this summer in its push to build relationships with first responders.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the company’s focus is on investing in its railways to prevent incidents, but the training sessions help local responders become “familiar with best practices” of dealing with locomotives and potential rail incidents.

The December train derailment and explosion in Casselton that forced the evacuation of nearby residents is still a fresh memory, and other fiery derailments in recent months have involved Bakken crude, including a deadly explosion in Quebec.

But rail accidents are rare, McBeth said. The rate of incidents has gone down over the past decade, though she said she does understand why communities along railroads would be concerned.

“There’s heightened interest and awareness,” McBeth said.

The course, led in part by BNSF manager of hazardous materials training Derek Lampkin, took place in both a classroom and out on the tracks with special training tanks the company totes from city to city.

Mark Dreyer, an eight-year veteran firefighter who serves with the volunteer crews in Medora and Billings County, attended the State Fire School in Minot in February and said Wednesday’s class was more of a refresher for him, but that more training couldn’t hurt.

He said he’s seen a lot in his 2½ years in western North Dakota related to the oil boom, both good and bad.

“There’s lots of benefits, but there’s a downside, too,” Dreyer said. “I saw how overwhelmed (emergency management services) was, especially in Watford City and Williston. People can only take so much.”

He said he and others in his community aren’t overly concerned about a crude oil incident, but “training like this just gets everybody prepared.”

Volunteer Dickinson firefighter Shawn Schumacher said responding to a rail incident – whether it involves crude oil or other hazardous materials – would be unlike responding to most other emergencies.

Responders would have to deal with large amounts of materials, he said, and evacuate a large area of town if the incident were in or near Dickinson.

“You’re securing the perimeter, and you’re calling in for extra help,” Schumacher said.

A lifelong resident of Dickinson, Schumacher said he’s seen the oil industry grow.

“It’s definitely time for some training,” he said.