Heitkamp: A step closer to improved first response

WASHINGTON -- Almost exactly a year ago, Janelle Pepple, who coordinates 911 calls as the Wells County Deputy Sheriff, couldn't have anticipated the inpouring of "frantic, never-ending" inquiries she would receive when a reported grass fire -- se...

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, N.D.-R

WASHINGTON -- Almost exactly a year ago, Janelle Pepple, who coordinates 911 calls as the Wells County Deputy Sheriff, couldn’t have anticipated the inpouring of “frantic, never-ending” inquiries she would receive when a reported grass fire - seen from a distance in the sleepy farm town of Heimdal - turned out to be the blaze of a derailed crude oil train that would burn for two days straight as responders from North Dakota’s tight-knit neighboring counties worked to control it.

It’s a blessing no one was hurt in Heimdal, but this incident wasn’t North Dakota’s first warning.

After a crude oil train derailed in Casselton in December 2013, it was clear we needed to take action. By convening a statewide Strong & Safe Communities task force to help address emerging challenges facing the state, like crude oil train derailments, my goal was to bring a greater focus on keeping North Dakota’s communities strong and families safe in their homes well into the future.

Even in the wake of our state’s oil and gas boom, North Dakota moves 35 percent of its crude on the rails to this day, reinforcing that we must take steps to secure tools and resources for our first responders to handle crude oil derailments if they occur to keep our communities safe.

All of our first responders - from those in North Dakota towns to others in rural Montana, Illinois and West Virginia who have seen crude oil trains derail in their communities since Casselton - have an urgent need to become prepared to keep themselves and our families safe.


That’s why it’s great news that the U.S. Senate unanimously passed my bill called the RESPONSE Act - a key piece of my Strong & Safe Communities initiative - which would help prepare our brave emergency responders, like the volunteer firefighters who answered the call in Heimdal and in Casselton, for such incidents. When they run toward the fire and toward danger to keep our families safe, they should know they have every tool and resource at their disposal to protect the communities they love and are able to return safely home.

To make sure our first responders can access quality training and effective, appropriate resources, my RESPONSE Act would create a public-private council combining emergency responders, federal agencies, and leading experts that would review training and best practices for first responders and provide Congress with the recommendations to address increased railway challenges so our emergency teams can keep our communities safe.

Volunteer firefighters comprise the vast majority of our state’s fire departments. Just as volunteer first responders were the first on the scene in Heimdal, that’s also so often the case across North Dakota when other emergencies occur. As Janelle tells it, “you don’t know what you need to prepare for, but you know you need to be prepared.”

Luckily, first responders from the neighboring town of Harvey were trained to do just that - and the report of a grass fire quickly shifted to a ‘code red,’ so that local residents were swiftly and safely evacuated and firefighters were able to respond, as Janelle says, “by the book.”

It’s crucial that we make sure all emergency teams are equipped to handle disasters that can happen at a moment’s notice on the rails - just like first responders on the scene in Heimdal. That’s exactly why my RESPONSE Act is so needed for our first responders and our communities. Now we need the U.S. House of Representatives to pass it.

By bringing all hands on deck - like I have with my Strong & Safe Communities task force - we can make sure Congress is informed with the best possible recommendations to prioritize the safety our hometowns, and those who put their lives on the line to keep them protected.

We can’t always prevent emergencies from happening, but we can take a page from the lessons we have learned. And we know from brave responders who answered the call to action in Heimdal, Casselton and so many other towns across the country that we have the opportunity to prepare for the worst, and prevent what Janelle says, “Without a doubt would have been a more tragic outcome.” And thankfully, we are now one step closer.

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