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When minutes and seconds matter: Company works to improve response to oil accidents

FNS Photo by Kevin Cederstrom An injured worker taking part in a simulated oil rig emergency is loaded onto Trinity Health’s NorthStar Criticair helicopter and flown from the site during a safety exercise Wednesday near Mandaree.

MANDAREE — Two years ago, Teresa Van Deusen felt helpless when an oilfield worker lost his arm in a drilling rig accident and had to wait two hours for an ambulance to arrive.

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Once the ambulance got to the remote North Dakota oilfield location, the paramedics decided to call for a helicopter, adding another 20 minutes.

“I don’t find that acceptable,” said Van Deusen, safety specialist for WPX Energy.

On Wednesday, the company demonstrated its new emergency response plan, which not only gets injured workers to a trauma center in about an hour, but also will improve emergency response to the local community.

WPX, which operates five drilling rigs on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, now stations a paramedic and a quick-responder at a central location to react to incidents at the company’s sites.

The response team also can provide assistance if there’s a vehicle crash or other emergency in the rural Mandaree area, where it can take 1½ hours to get an ambulance.

“This needs to benefit the whole community,” Van Deusen said.

The emergency response plan, which was developed by consultant Troy Easton, president of Health and Safety Solutions, involves training oilfield workers to know what to do before paramedics arrive, as well as how to assist the emergency response team.

The drilling crew also is trained to help guide a helicopter to a safe landing.

The goal is to get the injured worker from a rural Mandaree oilfield site to a trauma center in about an hour. It typically takes 5½ to six hours to get from the site to a trauma center due to the distance, the congested oilfield roads and overworked local ambulance crews, Easton said.

“If he’s got to lay on the ground for two hours, what’s his chance of survival?” Easton said.

In Wednesday’s demonstration, the crew simulated that an oil worker suffered a broken femur on the rig floor. The quick responder and paramedic arrived within minutes and the drilling crew was ready to work with them to lower the victim.

The simulation included a second critical injury when a crew member suffered a heart attack during the response.

The drilling crew worked with the first responders on the ground and helped guide a helicopter from Minot and another from Bismarck to land safely.

The program includes training helicopter crews on the basic components of an oilfield location so they can work safely.

“A lot of the crews have never seen a rig site before,” said Tamera Harvey, a flight nurse with Trinity Health’s NorthStar Criticair in Minot.

A flight crew from Sanford in Bismarck said the coordination on the ground during the simulation got the patient to the hospital at least 15 to 25 minutes faster.

In the simulation, both patients would have arrived at trauma centers in about an hour and likely in less time than it would have taken for a ground ambulance to arrive, Easton said.

The emergency response plan, which includes regular training and emergency drills, is seeing results.

“We’ve saved three guys’ butts big time flying them,” Easton said.

Medical personnel and emergency managers participated in the training session.

“It’s great to see the industry take on some of the responsibility to keep the job site safer,” said Randy Schwan, vice president of Trinity Health in Minot.

Easton’s next step is to expand the pilot project from five rigs to 25 rigs in North Dakota. Ultimately, it could become a national model, he said.

“Right now, this isn’t happening anywhere else in the nation,” Easton said.

Kurt Papenfus, a doctor from Colorado who serves on a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health committee, observed the simulation and said the program would work in a lot of different areas. He said getting industry to adopt the program will take showing companies that they’re better off in the long run being prepared for an emergency, rather than relying on dialing 911.

“Unfortunately, it usually takes some horrendous thing to slap you into reality,” Papenfus said, adding that the oil and gas industry has a fatality rate seven times higher than other industries. “There’s a lot of room to do a better job.”