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F-M officials not worried spill could happen here

If Rob Wilson were a gambling man, he'd bet a catastrophic spill like the one in Minot earlier this year would never happen in Fargo. With trains and trucks hauling hazardous materials through the city every day, Fargo's assistant fire chief said...

If Rob Wilson were a gambling man, he'd bet a catastrophic spill like the one in Minot earlier this year would never happen in Fargo.

With trains and trucks hauling hazardous materials through the city every day, Fargo's assistant fire chief said he's not worried about a large chemical spill.

"We can assume we have everything go through here," he said. "The big thing for this area is farm chemicals."

Anhydrous ammonia, propane, chlorine and manufacturing chemicals are some products shipped and stored in the metropolitan area.

One reason Wilson sounds confident is because about 60 Fargo-Moorhead firefighters combine to form a regional hazardous materials team. He said the group is trained as well as any in the nation.

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The hazmat team responds to chemical spills in Cass County and west-central Minnesota. Most spills are minor, but firefighters train for the worst-case scenario.

"If you're a gambler, you have to think it's not going to happen here, but you have to be prepared," Wilson said.

Delayed message

The Minot wreck gave local emergency officials a better look at what they would face in a terrorist attack or massive spill.

"This wasn't an accident, this was a catastrophe," Wilson said. "That is something you can't go in and be fully prepared for.

"Under the circumstances, they did the best they could. You're going to have some problems, I don't care how well-trained you are."

The biggest complaint about Minot's emergency plan was the failure to reach radio and TV stations early to put safety instructions on the air. No one answered calls by police because TV stations weren't on the air and radio stations were playing music piped in via satellite.

It took more than 90 minutes to put the message on Minot stations.

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"I can't see it happening" here, said Greg McDonald, emergency manager for Cass County.

Officials check the local system weekly and have a backup plan that allows the National Weather Service to scroll emergency information across the bottom of local television and cable programming.

In the wake of the Jan. 18 wreck, area officials identified several areas to improve how responders and the public handle emergencies.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, the Minot train wreck prompted:

- A campaign educating the public how to shelter in place. "It's going to take time to educate everyone," McDonald said. "I think there's a human nature to flee. We need to emphasize the importance of 'shelter in place.' That simple concept will save lives. We need to make that the focal point of our public education."

- Changes for alerts broadcasted on weather-band radios. The special radios will be used to inform the public about chemical spills or a terrorist attack. "That weather radio is going to be an invaluable piece of equipment to have," he said. "We're living in a new age of a terrorism threat."

- The local hazmat team to sign contracts to provide training courses to rural Cass County fire departments.The course is designed to train volunteer firefighters in towns such as Casselton and Harwood on how they should respond to terrorism events and weapons of mass destruction. The course, in part, shares lessons firefighters learned from the Minot wreck.

- Cass County schools to show videos educating teachers and students about how to respond during a chemical spill.

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- Changes to who can activate the area's emergency alert system. Before, the task was up to a top police official or the emergency manager. Now, the top firefighting official or a senior hazmat team member can activate the alert during an emergency.

Moorhead Fire Chief Marty Soeth said the train wreck surprised area firefighters.

"There is probably a heightened awareness about how much product could be released," Soeth said. "It could be much larger than we previously thought."

Mayors from Fargo, Moorhead, Dilworth and West Fargo plan to meet Tuesday to consider a proposal changing how the cities use outdoor sirens. McDonald plans to suggest the cities adopt policies for using the sirens for emergencies such as chemical spills.

"You hear the siren, get indoors and tune to the radio for further instructions," he said.

As part of the policy, cities would educate residents about sheltering in place. "We need to come up with innovative ways to get the message out," McDonald said. "We're open to suggestions."

Details about sheltering in place have been published in newsletters mailed out by the Fargo School District. The information likely will be published on the inside cover of phone books.

Storage an issue

In North Dakota, 227 facilities store a total of more than 100,000 pounds of hazardous materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Most of these sites are near small towns or inside larger towns," said Scott Fry, an organizer for the Dakota Resource Council. As an agricultural state, North Dakota houses numerous storage sites for anhydrous ammonia, he said.

The nonprofit council teamed up with the Safe Hometown Initiative after Sept. 11 to create public awareness about the transportation and storage of chemicals nationally.

"In North Dakota, anhydrous ammonia is important for two reasons," Fry said. "It's very poisonous, and there's virtually no security."

Minot City Manager David Waind said every community should review rail safety issues. Those issues should include train speeds and knowledge of the chemicals being shipped and the type of emergency warning systems in place, he said.

U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said these issues should be addressed nationally.

"The reality of modern commerce is that hazardous materials are traveling through our communities every day," he said. "We need to put the whole Minot episode under the microscope and make changes nationwide."

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