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Emily Welker, Published February 12 2013

EVAC concerned North Dakota bill will force them to dump blue lights in favor of amber ones

FARGO – It’s the morning after last weekend’s big 10-inch snow shut down the city, and Charles Dosh, president of EVAC, is stifling a yawn as he talks.

“Sorry, I’m a little tired,” Dosh said. “I went out there at 5 yesterday and didn’t get in until 8 a.m.”

Dosh heads the volunteer group Emergency Vehicle Assistance and Communication. He spent the night along with nine other volunteers driving stuck dispatchers, doctors, nurses and other stranded essential workers to their jobs.

But now Dosh is considering leaving EVAC after nearly a decade of volunteer service, citing concerns for his own safety. That‘s thanks to a new bill wending its way through the state Legislature that would take away the blue lights on top of EVAC vehicles.

“The blue lights afford us a little more respect from the public,” said Dosh, adding that he thinks the kind of work they do wouldn’t be safe for volunteers if they had to replace their blue lights with amber lights.

He said that with amber lights readily available at local hardware stores and being in common use on commercial plow trucks, vehicles that have them don’t command the same attention from drivers as blue lights.

Dave Rogness, Cass County’s emergency services director, agrees there may be some truth to the notion that drivers give the EVAC volunteers more respect with blue lights. But that, he points out, has led to problems in the past.

Rogness said in years past, he’s had reports of EVAC workers misusing the lights by running through traffic at 30 mph over the speed limit while they were on.

While those reports were some time ago, he said, the change to the law was proposed by state Division of Emergency Services officials because they weren’t comfortable with anyone who wasn’t a licensed law enforcement officer using the blue lights.

Minnesota state law already prohibits non-law-enforcement from using blue lights.

A bill considered in the last session of the North Dakota Legislature would have eliminated the possibility of non-law enforcement using blue lights, Rogness said, but the legal language wasn’t as carefully drafted as it could have been.

The way the law reads now, he said, he’s responsible for EVAC workers using the blue lights, without having any real authority over the organization. Rogness said EVAC volunteers are often called into service directing traffic at sporting events, community events, the Fargo marathon and other non-emergency events.

“I can’t be comfortable when I don’t have any control over their use or their training,” he said.

Fargo Police Department leaders hope Rogness does take on the responsibility.

“They have been a wonderful resource we have relied on to supplement traffic control,” said the Lt. Joel Vettel.

“Resources can be extremely thin during disasters and other events,” he said, and if police lose EVAC as a resource, they’d worry about it creating a safety hazard.

Vettel said the Police Department would support the emergency managers of the state having the power to designate which groups have the ability to use blue lights. “But it’s not our call,” he said.

Dosh and his fellow EVAC volunteers are calling for friends to contact lawmakers to press for a “no” vote on HB 1100. Otherwise, he said, he and all but three of his fellow volunteers will likely leave the organization – which he doubts would survive. “We couldn’t keep it going,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541

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