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Staff blog: Bill would allow designated incident commanders to order evacuations during local emergencies

BISMARCK -- North Dakota senators are considering a bill that would expand who could order mandatory evacuations during life-threatening situations. House Bill 1327 allows designated incident commanders to order evacuations if they find it necess...

BISMARCK -- North Dakota senators are considering a bill that would expand who could order mandatory evacuations during life-threatening situations.

House Bill 1327 allows designated incident commanders to order evacuations if they find it necessary to save lives during a local disaster or emergency. Anyone who violated the order would be guilty of an infraction, which is a $500 fine.

There's been a lot of confusion about the bill and what it does, said Greg Wilz, deputy director of the state Department of Emergency Services.

"In no way does this bill serve as a foundation for instituting martial law," he said in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "It only allows mandatory evacuation decisions relating to areas in which risk levels are directly associated with loss of life."

This could include hazardous material spills, flooding, fires and storms that turn into catastrophic events.

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Right now, the governor or a city's mayor can order evacuations, if city ordinance gives the mayor the authority. Under the bill, a local government could give fire, law enforcement or other emergency officials the authority to order an evacuation as well, he said.

Allowing additional officials this authority provides quicker decision making by those who have real-time awareness of the situation, Wilz said.

For example, an incident could occur when the mayor and governor are unavailable or asleep in the middle of the night, and immediate action is needed to save lives, he said.

The bill provides safeguards so the authority is not misused, he said. It requires activation of a local jurisdiction's disaster or emergency operations plan, which must identify the incident commanders allowed evacuation authority.

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, said she's received e-mails from Fargo residents who stayed in their homes during flooding to save their homes despite being asked to evacuate

"They are strongly in opposition to this bill," she said. "So, when you are talking about impelling someone to leave their property, are you talking about handcuffs? Where are you really going with this?"

Wilz said decisions would be made at the local level and determined on a case by case basis. If residents remain in their homes during flooding and aren't in danger of being killed, he said he wouldn't push that.

If people could die if they stay, then local action will be increased, he said.

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Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, asked how cities would designate incident commanders since there's no way to know who's awake when or who will respond to an incident.

Wilz said his department would work with and educate local jurisdictions about the potential law change to help them with their plans.

Some communities may want a group of local senior leaders to jointly determine whether to order an evacuation, since evacuating a city like Fargo is "a major, major decision," Wilz said.

Jerry Hjelmstad of the North Dakota League of Cities supported the bill, saying the designated commanders would only have authority in situations where there is no time for the mayor to declare an emergency.

Sitte asked who would have the authority if there were disagreements between the mayor and the designated commander.

Hjelmstad said the mayor would take precedence if there is time for the mayor to be involved, such as a situation that builds up over time like flooding.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said the bill would provide uniform policy across the state.

Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, said the $500 fine for ignoring an evacuation order "seems like a slap on the wrist." Wilz agreed, but said it's difficult to get approval for tougher penalties.

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He pointed to legislation being considered now about how much to increase the fines against drivers on closed roads.

No one opposed the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action.

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