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Stark County first responders simulate chemical disaster in joint-agency training exercise

“Working with people you don't normally work with, that's probably the biggest benefit to the exercise. You learn to work together so that when you have a real incident and you need their help, you know how they work compared to you and how things go,” said Gladstone Assistant Fire Chief Doug Brost.

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Dickinson area firefighters sanitize "victims" during hazmat disaster simulation near Taylor, N.D. on Thursday, July 21.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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TAYLOR, N.D. — The alarms sound in the firehouse and the race begins. Firefighters load-up and move toward the scene as additional information follows. Is it a car accident? Another food-on-the-stove fire? Blaze in the oilfield?

Regardless of the incident, Hazmat risks can exist on any call and a joint-training exercise taught area agencies best practices for coordination and mitigation as emergency services in Stark County converged at a grain processing plant near Taylor in a training aimed at simulating a hazardous waste disaster and fire.

Thursday evening at a CHS Southwest Grain facility between Gladstone and Taylor, southwest North Dakota emergency service agencies waded through heavy clouds of smoke to wrangle a real, but simulated, blaze. Others scrambled to close off valves and stop anhydrous ammonia from leaking out of a semi-trailer, as Sheriff’s deputies carried blood soaked chemical burn victims to an assembly line of firefighters who assisted in sanitizing the victims.

While the blood was fake, the fire staged and the ammonia a non-hazardous replacement, the training exercise prepared first responders for a chemical disaster involving dozens of victims.

Preparing for the worst

According to Derek Hanson, president of Heartland Consulting, the exercise was funded by a FEMA grant. Hanson said they decided to simulate a hazardous materials disaster because that’s among the more likely scenarios to occur as southwestern North Dakota has massive oil and agriculture facilities. Heartland works with public and private sector entities to boost preparedness, efficiency and cohesion among first responder organizations.

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Gladstone Firefighters putting out smoke during a training exercise to simulate a chemical spill involving anhydrous ammonia.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

“CHS Southwest Grain was nice enough to offer their area because we needed a nice open space to bring in tankers, plume smoke, start fires and have plenty of room for first responders,” Hanson said.

The endeavor demanded several months of planning and hundreds of hours of work. He added that this portion of the state is lucky to have a top-notch hazmat response team in Dickinson.

The mock disaster simulated a semi-truck driver having a seizure before colliding with and derailing a train, causing multiple chemical spills, including anhydrous ammonia, and a fire. While containing those, EMS workers rushed to treat victims suffering smoke inhalation, burns, chemical exposure and traumatic crash injuries.

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A Sanford Health helicopter lands during a training exercise.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

Shayleigh O’Hanlon is a Heartland intern and soon to be graduate of NDSU’s emergency management program who assisted in coordination. She helped design “injects,” which are unexpected challenges that workers must figure out how to address. For example, during an exercise in April one of the victims was left behind so her colleague timed officials to see how long it would take them to realize the person was missing. She also explained chemical spills can impact surrounding areas.

“Once ammonia spills on the ground it’s going to be off-gassing. It’s going to be affecting the population, so then you'll be trying to get people to shelter in place or evacuate depending on how close they are and what type of chemical it is,” O’Hanlon said. “Hazmat incidents can get very complex if you don’t do planning and training, especially if you have a hazmat team that is a ways out.”

Working as a team

Gladstone Assistant Fire Chief Doug Brost said these exercises build cohesion among various departments of first responders in the area.

“Working with people you don't normally work with, that's probably the biggest benefit to the exercise. You learn to work together so that when you have a real incident and you need their help, you know how they work compared to you and how things go,” Brost said. “Communication is always an issue because you get so much radio traffic with so many people calling, so many people asking what they should do, where they should go, how they should do it. When you get this many agencies involved, it really clutters up the radio.”

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Stark County Sheriff’s Lt. Eldon Meher agreed that these simulations are beneficial.

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“First of all, it identifies strengths and weaknesses. You look at the magnitude of the exercise we did today… It allows our folks to put into practice the training that they receive in as close to a real life scenario as possible,” Meher said. “It’s putting that incident command structure into place and being able to work with the different departments.”

Another key component of this training is triaging, the strategic prioritization of treating the most life threatening injuries first.

“You try and triage based on the most serious injury, that sort of thing. Obviously if you have walking wounded, they would take less priority than someone in a critical situation. Someone that's already deceased, they're already deceased. So you move on from that, unfortunately, to provide care where it's absolutely needed,” he said, adding that hazardous materials must be stabilized before anyone can be sent in to treat wounds. “Identifying the risks in a hazardous material situation is paramount.”

Rescuing the wounded
Stark County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Kessinger moves a victim to the treatment station.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

He further explained the role of law enforcement in such catastrophes.

“In a lot of cases we’re going to be the first on scene. If it’s called in as a hazardous material situation, first and foremost, they need to know wind direction so they know how to approach that scene and, if possible, identify what type of chemical or hazardous material is being released,” Meher said, praising the event’s organizers. “It was a great cooperative effort amongst everybody that was here. A lot of the credit goes to emergency management and LEPC (local emergency planning committee) folks that planned out the event, including all the appropriate agencies so we can truly test our capabilities. Just, hats off to them. They did an amazing job.”

Other participating entities included the Stark County Office of Emergency Management, Stark County Dispatch Center, Stark County Highway Department, Dickinson Rural and City Fire Departments, Richardton Fire Department, Taylor Fire Department, Dickinson Ambulance Service, Richardton/Taylor Ambulance Service, Sanford Air, ND Highway Patrol, CHI Dickinson Hospital, ND Department of Emergency Services - Homeland Security, Heartland Consulting Group, CHS SW Grain Company, BNSF Railroad, Brenntag Pacific, National Weather Service - Bismarck, Martin Company and Baranko Inc.

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Dickinson firefighters set up a treatment station to spray and disinfect victims during a training exercise.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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A firefighter walks by as chemicals fume out of a container in the background.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in rural southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge.
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