Every second counts: First responders face navigation, radio problems
On New Year’s Eve afternoon, a man was struck by a piece of pipe at a oil drilling rig site in the Bakken.
Williams County dispatchers tried to get help there as soon as possible.
“Please respond to a rig accident north of Williston to 60th Street Northwest … Probably between 137th and 138th Avenues Northwest … It looks like it’s gonna be on the north side of the road …
“They weren’t really sure where they are.”
Just as fast as drilling rigs move around western North Dakota, so too do the throngs of workers that follow them — leaving groups of crews doing dangerous work, and not knowing where they are if they have to call for help.
Along with rigs, the oil boom has brought rapid development. That means new housing developments are in brand new, or unofficial, addresses. And those that aren’t lucky enough to find their place in the expensive, high-demand housing market often shack up in rural locations completely unknown to local agencies.
It all adds up to a nightmare for local first responders, who are dealing with more than ever before, and who say the growing number of calls isn’t the only problem. The navigation problems are worsened by fuzzy Bismarck-based state radio, which some counties switched to after the Stark County Law Enforcement Center dispatch became overwhelmed.
Hard to keep up
Finding one of the fleeting rigs is even worse when workers aren’t local, which is usually the case.
“We’re gonna have a worker on a rig site who could be from Arkansas or Alaska … try to talk to a dispatcher in Bismarck to tell them where he is,” said Ann Hafner, the paramedic manager at Killdeer Area Ambulance, which serves 968 square miles.
And just like the rig crews, many responders aren’t local — the locals went for industry jobs. That means a void in knowing the “regional language,” said Killdeer CPR Driver Curtis Hanzel.
“In small towns in the past, you usually gave directions by saying it was ‘the only gray house — about two down from the old Smith residence — you know, the one where the Johnsons lived before that,” North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Tessa Sandstrom said in an email.
The rural locations of some of these well sites is problematic for more than just getting the oil to market — workers driving to work can get lost and have no idea where they are.
“These rig sites, they’re there for a relatively short length of time and they’re driving and who knows what road they took and they get lost,” Divide County Sheriff Lauren Throntveit said. “That happens fairly regular that they are lost. We have people that call that are saying ‘They left work and they haven’t showed up.’”
Responders can try and go the other way about finding incidents, by getting the rig number and checking records to find where it’s registered on that day.
But it’s still hard to keep up, and those records aren’t easily obtainable when every second counts.
Halliday responder Jim Schaper said it’s “virtually impossible” to keep track of where rigs are.
“You almost need a 911 (operator) just for oil rigs,” Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew said.
But Brew is optimistic about a new rule that requires companies to put a street address on any rig or well site sign.
The rule, from the oil-regulating North Dakota Industrial Commission, was in response to emergency responders’ trouble, spokeswoman Alison Ritter said. Operators will also be required to show at the time of permitting that they’ve applied for a legal address.
With the new requirement, which goes into effect in April, a worker can find the newly required address on-site and give it to the dispatcher to enter into the system, allowing the dispatcher to give better directions to responders.
Sometimes, responders are in sight of a rig but because oil companies build roads themselves, or the location is so rural, they still might not be able to get the ambulance to the site.
“Quite often, they may be able to see the rig and see maybe that there’s a fire on a rig, but they’re a mile south and they can’t quite figure out how to get there,” Ritter said. “If there’s that legal street address, they have a better idea of where they’re going.”
Responders in counties like Dunn and Billings say the radio is so fuzzy they can’t glean basic details like where to go for an incident, or what they’ll find when they get there.
That leads to delays in the response to increasingly serious incidents.
“Just one incident is enough when it’s your child,” said Wally Owen, a driver for the Medora Ambulance Service and a retired EMT.
The radio isn’t always great or always bad — it’s inconsistent. Add that to bad existing cellphone service, and responders in two ambulances headed to the same incident might not even be able to talk.
Owen is proud of the Medora ambulance station. With oil impact money, it has invested in high-quality equipment and has one of the fastest response times in the state.
But the state radio drags it down.
“The weakest spot is that communication,” he said.
At the Killdeer ambulance station, responders avoid chatter on the airwaves because the channels are too busy.
And because of the bad reception, Hafner has three channels on three different radios playing constantly — “hoping that we hear what we need to hear.”
Brew will soon meet with state radio officials to discuss the issues rural counties are having with the reception.
It all adds up to seconds and minutes lost, and pain and suffering mounting, in serious situation.
“‘We heard it was River Road, was it East River Road or West River Road?’” Owen said as an example.
“If it’s not clear you can head in the total wrong direction.”
Neighborhoods popping up, not settling down
Sometimes responders can’t find a certain address because it isn’t there.
As workers come in search of immediate jobs, they need places to stay. The hasty style of migration means man camps, RV parks and even subdivisions can go up and have occupants living in them before they’re addressed through the proper zoning boards.
“We don’t even know they’re there (until something happens),” Throntveit said.
“They’ll just put up a camper someplace — they’ll put two or three of them up, a lot of times they don’t go through zoning and get permission for that.”
These workers aren’t settling down, either, giving them less incentive to go through all the work to get an official address.
“It certainly is a problem when we don’t have addresses for these temporary housing locations — especially when you have RVs parked in tree rows in agricultural or farm lands — that’s definitely difficult for EMS to find people in those situations,” said Vicky Steiner, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties.
As is common with the boom, the issue can arise from folks thinking in the immediate, not the long term.
“It’s not important at the time when the sun is shining,” Throntveit said. “It’s when, all of a sudden, everything goes down the tubes, ‘Oh yeah I guess we should have done that.’”
A different job
For 30-year veterans of the job like Owen, the biggest change is what kind of incidents he responds to.
Hafner, too, said that it’s not the increasing calls that get to her — even though they’ve jumped from about 50 runs six years ago to more than 300 a year now.
It’s the type of call.
The job isn’t about just helping “little old ladies” anymore, she said. It’s arms ripped off and people crushed by machines.
In 2012, only a single incident in the Killdeer service area was serious enough to require a helicopter trip to a hospital. Last year, that happened six times.
When Owen started in Medora in 1984, one ambulance was enough.
Now responders like him sometimes need police escorts because their patients — strangers — are under the influence of drugs like methamphetamine.
“A lot of times calls used to be friends,” he said.
“It used to be all neighborly things.”