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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published April 05 2014

After deadly Interstate 29 crashes, rescuers seek role in closing roads

GRAND FORKS – First responders in the Grand Forks area want a prominent seat at the table when decisions are made about closing – or not closing – highways during inclement weather.

The call for action comes after a series of fatal accidents during blizzard or icy-road conditions along Interstate 29 this winter, periods in which the North Dakota Department of Transportation and North Dakota Highway Patrol had issued no-travel warnings but did not close the highway.

Four people died in two accidents in a 28-mile stretch of I-29 in Pembina County in late December and January. Two women died in another I-29 accident in Traill County, near Hillsboro, in early March.

In the Pembina County incidents, local fire and ambulance officials say they unsuccessfully attempted to convince state officials to close I-29, so rescue workers could assist victims at the multivehicle accident scenes. In addition, they say volunteers were placed in harm’s way as they tried to assist the victims.

“It’s not so much that we’ve asked for the law to be changed,” said Drayton Fire Chief Jordan Grundstrom. “We’d like to have some input in it. We’re the ones who get the call. We’re the ones out risking our lives.”

Domino effect

NDDOT and the Highway Patrol share the responsibility of deciding whether to close roads or to issue travel advisories or alerts. Current policy calls for consultation with local agencies. NDDOT Director Grant Levi issued a memo in December to clarify responsibilities and to provide guidance on how local officials should initiate road-closing or other road emergency procedures.

In a recent letter to state officials, Grundstrom described the scene as rescue workers tried to assist victims of what became a multiple-fatality accident north of Drayton: “Before we knew it we had 4 to 5 vehicles coming up to our scene and colliding with one another because visibility was so poor that they had no idea there was an issue on the road.”

One of the vehicles involved was a Pembina County Sheriff’s Department patrol car, he said.

A short time later, two semitrailers passed the accident scene at speeds estimated at 50 to 60 mph, he said, “which sent most of the emergency responders running as we all feared they would run into our trucks and we would have a mass casualty on our hands.”

Ideas sought

Gov. Jack Dalrymple responded last month to a separate joint letter from four Pembina County emergency response organizations by explaining that while proper protocol was followed in the incidents, he has asked NDDOT and the Highway Patrol to seek advice from Pembina County officials to improve procedures.

“Since our winter weather can be unpredictable, closing the interstate is rarely a straightforward procedure,” he wrote. He cited a lack of facilities to accommodate motorists pulled off the highway at the U.S.-Canada border crossing, as well as other complications.

“Closing the interstate system may encourage some motorists to seek another route, possibly less safe than the interstate,” he wrote.

Jeremy Mattison, Cavalier Ambulance Service president, suggested the state install closing gates on all interstate interchanges, to prevent access by motorists who either are unaware of or ignore travel warnings and road closures.

He also said the current method of relying on local radio stations to deliver road information may be out of date.

“In this day and age of multiple radio stations, it may be a slow means to communicate, especially with those who are out of state/country not knowing which station is ‘local,’ ” he said.

NDDOT also encourages motorists to call 511 and to consult the department’s online travel map.

State Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, said he hopes to host a meeting in Pembina County by fall to bring together local emergency responders and state officials to discuss procedures.

“I think there was some breakdown in communication,” he said. “It’s so hard to look back at the situation and second-guess. People perished. It’s heart-wrenching. We have to look forward, so we can maybe prevent something like this from happening again.”