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Safety in the Oil Patch a top priority

Guardian Flight Air Ambulance paramedic Keith Finch instructs WPX Energy employees on the proper procedures for loading a seriously injured oil rig worker for air rescue during a demonstration at a well pad site near New Town on Thursday.

NEW TOWN -- Safety is often a top priority for companies operating in the Bakken.

From rig site work to chemical handling to the cumbersome logistical task of moving supplies and goods, oilfield-related businesses are quick to stress safety in order to keep their employees healthy and working and to keep costs down.

On Thursday, WPX Energy, a publicly-traded oil and gas exploration company working in the Williston Basin, provided some of its employees with a demonstration of an air rescue at one of the company's sites near New Town on the banks of Lake Sakakawea's Van Hook peninsula.

During the demo -- one of several training sessions that WPX employees have participated in this summer -- safety firm Rig-Fit USA, in partnership with a Guardian Flight Air Ambulance crew, simulated a rescue situation, complete with WPX workers setting up a makeshift helicopter landing pad.

"The more you can do on the ground in advance of our arrival, the better off the patient will be," said flight crew pilot Gerry Fordham. "Our crew is always made up of one pilot and two paramedics or one pilot, a paramedic and a nurse. We fly at a maximum altitude of 1,000 feet and can transport a patient who weighs up to 300 pounds."

In addition to classroom training and instruction, the rescue simulation gave employees a taste of what a real situation would be like with a seriously injured rig worker who, quite often in North Dakota, would be located in a desolate area.

"This is different because we actually (had) a helicopter visit us right on our well pad," said WPX spokesman Zac Weis. "For us, and for all the other operators working here, it's an amazing asset to have these helicopters and these types of services on-call. We're in such remote locations working in the Bakken and we're so spread out, it's difficult to reach us. The time difference between a ground ambulance and an air ambulance is incredible."

Rig-Fit President Troy Easton, who refers to his demonstrations as "landing zone operations classes," has been working to try to get uniform standards for onshore drilling helicopter response procedures.

"The time from the first phone call to the time the helicopter hits the pad is critical," Easton said. "With four helicopters in western North Dakota in Williston, Dickinson, Minot and Bismarck, we expect patients to be transported to a medical facility, all said and done, within one hour to one hour and 15 minutes. That means we are going from might have been hours to just one hour."

For an outfit that is producing on average more than 12,000 barrels of crude oil per day in the Bakken, according to its latest earnings report, which was released Thursday, WPX is always looking for ways to improve safety and response time, said Weis.

"If we're talking about life or death situations, we think it's important to have our people up to speed on this training and how to assist the air ambulance professionals," Weis said. "Timing is absolutely critical and we our people need to know what to expect should something happen rather than flying around during a chaotic scene. This way, they'll know exactly what to do."