'Hiccup' led to delay in dispatching hazmat team
BISMARCK — As derailed train cars exploded near his city on Dec. 30, Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean called a phone number he thought would put him in touch with someone who could dispatch a Fargo-based hazardous materials team to the fiery scene.
“It rang and rang and rang, and then it went to voicemail,” he said.
In Bismarck, one of the Department of Emergency Services’ reaction officers whose job it is to carry a phone 24/7 and answer it in such emergency situations didn’t get the call, said Greg Wilz, North Dakota’s director of homeland security.
That person therefore wasn’t able to notify the staff duty officer who would normally dispatch the hazmat team and inform Wilz of the situation, resulting in a delay of “probably less than 30 minutes,” he said.
The failed communication was a “hiccup” in what was otherwise a textbook response to the derailment, Wilz told the Legislature’s interim Economic Impact Committee after Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, asked him about coordination between his agency and local emergency management.
“Somehow, some way, that phone call never got there,” Wilz said. “We don’t know why, whether it dropped or whether my (reaction) officer at the time didn’t hear it or it was on vibrate and didn’t feel the buzz, but generally we keep them off vibrate because those are really important calls. So we don’t know what happened.”
When the officer didn’t pick up, McLean said he called State Radio, and the duty officer called him back within 10 minutes.
Fortunately, McLean said, he had also been on the phone with a Fargo assistant chief who told him they were sending resources. A regional Emergency Response Technician hazmat team, one of eight such teams in the state, responded quickly to the scene.
Wilz said Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen called him within minutes after McLean was in contact with the Fargo Fire Department.
“(Dirksen) said, ‘We’re not waiting around for a piece of paper to come.’ And he’s right, they shouldn’t,” Wilz said.
Since 2011, the state has had formal agreements in place with its largest cities to provide hazmat resources on a regional basis. Within those agreements, Wilz said, an understanding exists with local officials that if they make the call to respond, the state will back them up.
“It’s a trust relationship,” he said.
More than 400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in the aftermath of the Dec. 30 crash in which a train carrying soybeans derailed and was struck by an oncoming train hauling crude oil on BNSF tracks about a half-mile west of Casselton, the federal National Transportation Safety Board reported.
McLean said any delay in getting the hazmat technicians to the site didn’t affect containment of the spill, which already was under way by his firefighters and other first responders.
Other than the initial unanswered call, he said the response from the Department of Emergency Services and other agencies “couldn’t have worked any better.”
Wilz said another lesson learned was that the state wasn’t fast enough in notifying Minnesota officials about the incident, adding that within hours, “we had a toxic plume going over to their state.” The department has revised its checklist, he said.