Oklahoma Emergency Leaders Learn From North Dakota Derailment

Tuesday, December 31st 2013, 4:45 pm
By: Craig Day

A town in North Dakota narrowly escaped tragedy when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded.

The town was forced to evacuate while health experts tested the air quality in the area.

Closer to home, emergency management leaders analyze what's happening there, to be prepared in case it ever happens here in Green Country.

When a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed Monday in North Dakota, about 20 cars carrying crude oil caught fire, sending a fireball and thick smoke into the sky.

It prompted the evacuation of a town of 2,400 people.

Tulsa County Emergency Management Director Roger Jolliff says that's no easy task.

"If that is going to be done, that's a major undertaking, because you can't just tell them to leave without a plan," Jolliff said.

Part of that is sheltering and feeding people.

Even though the derailment and repeated explosions happened more than 800 miles away, it's the type of dangerous situation Oklahoma emergency leaders will look at closely.

"You watch this, you watch how they respond, you look at the challenges they had," said Jolliff, "you look at our resources and our response partners and what we can do to make our operations better."

Jolliff says after major events, like the derailment, emergency management leaders across the country can access after action reviews and reports.

"Each one of these events brings new lessons learned, gives us more to train on, gives us more to prepare for," said Jolliff.

Jolliff says rail traffic is extremely safe, considering the overall number of miles traveled. But there is always the potential for a dangerous derailment.

According to Federal Railroad Administration data from January of 2013 through September, there have been more than 20 train incidents in Oklahoma, half of those in Tulsa County.

Disaster exercises are held throughout the year for a wide range of scenarios and Jolliff says everyone should always be prepared for an emergency evacuation.

"It's very important that they keep a go bag, close by, a small backpack. I don't care if it's a grocery sack," Jolliff said, "Those things that you'd want to have with you if you had to leave your home right now."

In November, the Association of American Railroads urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to press for improved regulations on tank cars used to transport flammable liquids.