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Rail safety concerns prompt multi-state training center idea for Grand Forks

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Rail safety concerns prompt multi-state training center idea for Grand Forks
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Prompted by rail safety concerns, Grand Forks city leaders are in the early stages of possibly expanding the local first responders training center to have a wider, multi-state regional scope.


The idea came after a meeting in Washington with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., earlier this month, said council member Bret Weber.

After the explosive train derailment in Casselton, N.D., in December highlighted the hazards of crude oil transportation by rail, Heitkamp and many others have publicly expressed concerns about rail safety, including the importance of first responder training.

When she met with Grand Forks leaders, Heitkamp said she will push for federal dollars to be made available for first responder training, said Abbie McDonough, spokeswoman for Heitkamp’s office in Washington. Although Heitkamp can’t guarantee anything now, she encouraged Grand Forks to be prepared in case the federal funding opportunity arises, McDonough said.

So the city has started some early conversations to expand its first responder training facility into a regional center that could attract first responders from as far away as South Dakota or Montana for education and training, Weber said.

“We’re thinking pretty big,” he said.

Mayor Mike Brown, city administrator Todd Feland, council member Ken Vein and community/government relations coordinator Pete Haga were also in the Washington meetings.

Grand Forks idea

The idea of a regional first responder training center in Grand Forks is only in very preliminary stages, Haga said. There hasn’t been confirmation on what types of funding, if any, could be available for a project like this, he said.

“We’re just trying to draft ideas,” said Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O’Neill.

Hands-on emergency training for first responders, like what this possible training center could provide, is important, he said, because catastrophic emergencies like the Casselton derailment “don’t happen every day” and are difficult to prepare for.

Although the project would likely include partnerships with entities in other states or on the federal level, the conversations have remained local so far, Haga said. There are potential partners that have not yet been contacted, he said.

One possible partner is the Grand Forks Air Force Base, Weber said.

In an emailed statement Sunday, Heitkamp said she’s “glad (Grand Forks officials) are looking into such training and talking about ways to make sure the city is fully prepared for potential threats.”

If this regional first responders training center comes to fruition, O’Neill said it would only provide better training, building off of what the city and Grand Forks County responders already do.

“We do train now, but the more you can get hands-on experience, the better off it is for citizens and the responders,” he said.

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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