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Grand Forks eyes second rail safety training center in the U.S.

With safety concerns surrounding increased rail traffic and Bakken crude oil, state and city officials are looking at Grand Forks for a possible new emergency response training center--the second of its kind in the U.S.


With safety concerns surrounding increased rail traffic and Bakken crude oil, state and city officials are looking at Grand Forks for a possible new emergency response training center-the second of its kind in the U.S.

Security and Emergency Response Training Center, known as SERTC, is a private training service that is part of the Association of American Railroads. It provides public and private emergency responders-including those in Grand Forks-with training on hazardous materials and emergency response.

The only training center exists in Pueblo, Colo., but city and state officials hope to open a second training center in Grand Forks.

Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O'Neill pitched the idea of "SERTC North" to Grand Forks City Council members during a council work session Monday night.

"I don't know how much more publicity there could be with explosions in the Bakken and these recurring emergencies," he said of the need for another training center.


The center could provide training to cities, counties and private entities across North Dakota, the region and the nation, O'Neill said, adding a training center in Grand Forks could provide winter-related training not available in Pueblo.

Grand Forks firefighters now travel to Pueblo for this emergency response training, but with a center in Grand Forks, other entities would send responders here.

O'Neill asked for the council's support on the concept before he, Fire Battalion Chief Kelli Flermoen and State Department of Emergency Services Director Greg Wilz travel Wednesday to Pueblo to meet with SERTC officials. The state is paying for the trip as part of its support on the project, O'Neill said.

Council discussion

City Council members supported the idea but also had many questions, particularly focusing on cost.

Council member Doug Christensen said he didn't understand how the council could be expected to make a decision on the project Monday when they were hearing about it for the first time and many details are still left to figure out.

"The City Council didn't know about it until tonight. ... How can we say no, but how can we support it?" he said.

Council President Dana Sande said while he likes the idea of the training center, he wants to see numbers on how it is financially possible for the city to partner on this project.


Though most council members had heard some discussion about the project before Monday night, Sande said he was previously under the impression the training center would be something the city would profit from rather than being run by a private business.

O'Neill clarified he simply wanted support of the concept, as he knows the city must still work out many details with SERTC.

All council members informally agreed to support the concept of the training center.

After the meeting, O'Neill said he viewed the council's support and questions as positive. "We feel really good about that," he said.

State support

City Council members aren't the only ones supporting SERTC North.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has supported the project as part of her ongoing effort to improve rail safety and to curb concerns related to the rail transport of Bakken crude oil, especially after the massive train derailment in December 2013 near Casselton, N.D.

Heitkamp visited Grand Forks in March with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and both voiced support for SERTC training, O'Neill said.


The state Legislature also dedicated $1.2 million to hazardous materials training and rail safety training in Grand Forks for the 2015-2017 biennium.

O'Neill said that funding puts a deadline on the SERTC project, because the money must be used within the biennium.

A location for the training center is among several details that must still be figured out between city, state and SERTC officials.

Previously, city officials had been eyeing a 10-acre city-owned lot near the existing Grand Forks Public Safety Training Center in the Industrial Park for the site of SERTC North, but SERTC officials from Pueblo have said that land will not work for a regional center, O'Neill said.

Despite the remaining questions, O'Neill said he is optimistic about the project due to the support already shown by city and state officials and the clear need for more rail safety training in the U.S.

"It's exciting stuff, but it's a lot of work," O'Neill said.

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