ND 'gold rush' stretches fire and EMS to its limits

2-year-old population explosion not letting up, challenging responders in ways they never dreamed possible


Imagine something like Sturgis crossed with "The Grapes of Wrath" and you begin to get an idea of the population explosion in North Dakota. That's what N.D. fire departments have been facing for the last two years in the wake of the oil- and gas-drilling boom.

The boom is due to a technique that recently became affordable to drilling companies. Fracking, as it's called, allows drillers to extract otherwise unobtainable deposits of crude oil and natural gas.

Once-spent wells are now cash cows. And the rush for this valuable commodity is on. This breath of new economic life has created a mass migration of job seekers and a nightmare for fire and EMS services.

AP Photo/Gregory BullA man walks back to his temporary housing unit outside of Williston, N.D. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as man camps, now dot the sparse North Dakota landscape.
AP Photo/Gregory BullA man walks back to his temporary housing unit outside of Williston, N.D. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as man camps, now dot the sparse North Dakota landscape.

Responders overwhelmed
And rural northwestern N.D. is at the tip of the spear. According to Rick Graba, president of the North Dakota Firefighters Association and a captain with the Bismarck Fire Department, towns that once had a few small businesses and 60 residents are now overrun with thousands of trailers and workers.

"Everybody in the world is showing up in N.D. to look for a job," Capt. Graba said.

North Dakota has 376 fire departments — four are career and 11 are combination departments. Many of the remaining volunteer departments are used to call volumes of less than 100 per year. Now, they are doing six-times that.

"In Watford City," said Renee Loh, NDFA's executive director, "they were lucky if they went out once a day." Now the fire department is averaging six calls per day. In 1997, they had about 25 calls; in 2011 it was 153.

On average area-wide, Capt. Graba said, the responses have increased by as much as 65 percent over the past two years.

"The volunteer firefighters are getting worn out and tired," Loh said. "Something is going to have to be done. The risks faced by firefighters of N.D. are greater than ever before; we've got to be more prepared."

Rampant building
Because of a lack of housing in these rural towns, the oil companies have erected what are known as "man camps." These camps are often a collection of trailers deposited in open areas and function like mini dormitories.

There can be as many as 2,000 trailers in one camp, Capt. Graba said. Add to that, they were built at such a furious pace, that there was little to no planning — and certainly no fire inspections.

"Two years ago, N.D. could never have foreseen this," Capt. Graba said. "The regulations are just not in place."

Many municipalities are now taking steps to limit new man camp construction until the regulations can catch up.

Fortunately, fire departments are not seeing a great deal of fires at man camps. But the EMS calls have gone through the roof. And simply responding is no easy task.

"It is like a war zone," Capt. Graba said. "The demand for emergency services is huge. For EMS calls (in man camps), there's no addresses, there's no street names."

On one call, he said, it took the ambulance two hours to reach a patient with cardiac distress because nobody could tell the EMS crew where to go.

The bad side of good times
At a time when fire departments most need their volunteers, many cannot respond. In the old paradigm, many employers let their volunteer firefighter employees leave work to run calls. Now, those employers are so busy with the economic boom that they cannot afford to let the employees leave work, Loh said.

This heightened call volume and smaller crews have rendered mutual aid anemic.

Hard to believe, but the situation gets worse. The drilling sites do not have their own fire departments. So those same volunteers who are running more EMS calls than they ever imagined possible now have to train for industrial fires, tech rescue and hazmat.

The other major area of increased calls comes from motor vehicle crashes. And it is not just the added passenger cars on the road — the oil-drilling outfits have brought with them a flood of heavy-truck traffic.

Loh said the association brought in a company from Indianapolis to teach big-rig extrication classes. "We've also introduced oil-field emergency classes; it is a four-hour class and we take them out to do live fire training," she said.

Beyond man camps
And the unintended consequences run deeper yet. Those man camps mentioned earlier are populated by those with jobs, people who have already cleared drug and alcohol screenings.

This gold-rush fever has also drawn the unemployed hoping to get in on the action. They, Capt. Graba said, cannot get into the man camps and are living in just about any imaginable structure, many of which are unsafe.

They are living in abandoned homes and buildings, tents, and campers. The local Wal-Mart parking lot, he said, is filled with these job seekers. Most were lucky that the region experienced unseasonably mild weather. The typical N.D. winter, where temperatures dip will below 0° F, could have been tragic for those people.

"Houses that have been vacant for years are now being lived in because they can make a significant amount of money," Capt. Graba said. "If we would have had a typical winter, we'd have had numerous deaths from carbon monoxide and improper heating."

Beefing up staff
To combat this onslaught of demand for services, N.D. fire departments are vigorously recruiting new members. The association's training academy just finished one class with 760 recruits. NDFA is also developing public relations efforts, such as public service announcements, to bring in new volunteers.

But finding new bodies hasn't been easy despite the population explosion. All of those new people are not signing on to volunteer as firefighters.

"The oil-field people are working 14, 16 or 18 hours a day; they just want to go to bed and get ready for the next shift," Capt. Graba said. "We have not seen an increase in volunteerism and in some cases have seen a reduction."

For now the plan is to continue recruiting and training efforts and keep the pressure on state lawmakers for financial help. Loh said that the money for state energy impact grants was recently raised from $3 million to $7 million, and more may be on the way.

"The N.D. government is thinking about bumping that $7 million up to $30 million just to try to help some of those fire departments," she said. "We do have request into the governor's office to discuss some of our concerns."

N.D. fire departments also have begun organizing regional responses to incidents like hazmat or technical rescue. It will slow response time, Capt. Graba said, but at least they will have adequately trained teams for such incidents.

With the spike in demand and the lag in training, a major concern for both Capt. Graba and Loh is firefighter safety. NDFA is aggressive in pushing training and its firefighter safety message to its members. Both are on edge that serious injuries or line of duty deaths may be laying in wait.

"We are doing all we can, but we are very concerned," Loh said.

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