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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: RESPONSE Act will help keep first responders safe

WASHINGTON—Three years ago this week, disaster struck in Casselton.

A westbound train hauling soybeans derailed just outside of the North Dakota town, and when an eastbound train carrying crude oil hit the wreckage, the crash ignited fiery explosions that were heard and felt for miles.

Fortunately, North Dakota is home to some of the bravest first responders in the country. They quickly ran toward the danger to contain the fire and keep our communities safe.

Many of our state's first responders are volunteers—regular folks who step up to the plate, put on the uniform and risk everything to protect their families and friends when it's needed most. And we need to do everything we can to guarantee they have the high-quality training and resources to handle potential hazardous materials incidents as effectively and successfully as the first responders in Casselton did three years ago.

That's why I introduced my RESPONSE Act back in 2014 to make sure first responders have the tools and training they need. And I'm proud to announce that this bipartisan bill has now been signed into law.

When I hosted my Strong & Safe Communities Summit in Fargo last year, bringing together 150 community leaders from across the state, we discussed strategies for tackling North Dakota's emerging challenges—including increased crime and increased movement of oil by rail.

Feedback that I got from North Dakota first responders at the summit and through other aspects of the Strong & Safe Communities Initiative, which I launched after the Casselton derailment, helped reinforce how urgent it was for Congress to pass my bipartisan RESPONSE Act so it could become law.

Even with a slowdown in the Oil Patch, North Dakota moves 35 percent of its crude by rail, making it clear we need to train first responders for potential emergencies. The derailment of a crude oil train in Heimdal, N.D., last year, which our first responders again deftly handled, was another reminder that these are situations we need to always be prepared for.

Now that my bill is law, it will create a public-private council of first responders, federal agencies and leading experts to review training and best practices for first responders. Then the council will give Congress much-needed recommendations so we can be sure we're equipping and training our emergency teams as best as we can.

Emergency responders from Dickinson to Fargo have told me this bill can make a difference, especially in North Dakota. This new law will help guarantee the federal government—including critical agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—works with first responders to best prepare folks on the ground to handle crude by rail incidents.

"Our first responders are our first line of defense when it comes to keeping our communities safe," says Bill Fahlsing, the director of emergency services for Stark County. "Knowing that we're dispatching teams that received top-notch training and equipment is absolutely critical. Sen. Heitkamp's RESPONSE Act will help us to accomplish that."

Beyond the RESPONSE Act, I've also been pushing for years to improve first responder safety by helping secure $5 million in federal funding for a one-of-a-kind hazmat training facility in Pueblo, Colo. Many of the first responders who protected their communities during the Casselton and Heimdal incidents credited training at that facility as a key to their success.

As of last month, nearly 310 North Dakota first responders participated in training at the facility.

Emergencies and disasters often given us no warning—and there certainly wasn't any warning on that cold day in Casselton three years ago, when area responders leaped into action and did their jobs without hesitation.

But what we can do ahead of time is prepare our first responders, as my new law helps do, so they have the training and equipment needed to protect our communities and safely do their jobs.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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