Heitkamp visits fire department

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., paid a visit to the Minot Fire Department Wednesday afternoon.

Heitkamp spoke with C.J. Craven, Minot Fire Department chief, about a number of topics. Heitkamp noted she’s on the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. Senate, and said first responders and local communities have a large role to play in issues such as homeland protection and border security.

“A critical part of that is making sure our first responders are prepared, making sure our communities get the resources that they need to do what they need to do to protect the communities that they serve,” Heitkamp said. “And Minot is one the regional centers for the hazmat (hazardous materials) center and I wanted to take a look at this because this has been supported by federal dollars. (I want to) talk about operation and maintenance costs, and talk about the great job that they’re doing integrating this new oil industry – which is really in essence a chemical industry – into the community and making sure that the community is secure and safe.”

Heitkamp was impressed with what she saw, noting that as with almost every firehouse in North Dakota, you could eat off the floor at the Minot station.

“I have an expectation that it’s always going to look great,” Heitkamp said.

She said it’s wonderful to hear about the interstate cooperation the Minot Fire Department engages in, especially considering in other states turf wars can break out and fire departments compete with rather than help each other.

“That’s not true in North Dakota, in part because the chiefs cooperate because they work through the state and they don’t have turf battles and they’re able to do regional things like getting resources that are truly instrumental to protecting the community of Minot,” Heitkamp said.

“That’s one of the biggest strengths in North Dakota, is our cooperation. There’s no question about it,” Craven said. “Law enforcement and fire departments all over the state work together and that is one of our biggest strengths.”

He said the help they get from state and federal sources mirrors the cooperation between fire departments, and is a big help in allowing them to protect the communities they serve.

One of the subjects that came up during their talk was training, which is just as important as the equipment the firefighters use.

“You can buy all this equipment and have state-of-the-art, but (it’s useless) if you don’t have folks trained,” Heitkamp said.

The fire department’s training center has been located on the southeast side of Minot International Airport for the past 40 years or so, but due to airport expansion it will have to be moved. Craven said they are looking at a site near Maysa Arena for the new training center.

“The project is moving along and we’re going to get it done,” Craven said. “It’s necessary and hopefully we’ll have a good training grounds and a better airport when we’re done.”

Heitkamp said a new training facility is vital because it’s used for not just the Minot Fire Department, but for many other volunteer and professional departments around the region.

“They train the local volunteer fire departments, bring in the people from Williston, bring in people from all over the region who may have to respond to a hazmat spill or even a big fire,” Heitkamp said. “And the other thing that’s great to hear is how they’ve worked with companies that have come in.”

Craven said the companies that have moved to Minot have been cooperative in providing details about what chemicals they are using, which is extremely important because fighting a chemical fire is completely different from fighting a typical house or grass fire.

“One of our biggest battles is just to know what’s out there, what chemicals are where, where they’re stored, what the dangers of those chemicals are,” Craven said. “We get that information from the companies, and they’re very good most of the time about providing us that information.”

Another challenge the two spoke about is retaining staff. With all the oil companies coming to the area, staff turnover has become a bigger struggle than it used to be for the Minot Fire Department. Craven said the training is so costly that losing even one employee is a big financial hit.

“We’ve been dealing with that over the last three years, and we’ve kind of stabilized. The city has stepped up and helped us keep some of our employees, and hopefully we can look forward to keeping people that have been trained,” Craven said. “It is enormously expensive to train a firefighter, and if I lose one after four or five years it’s really not cost effective.”

One of the factors in losing employees has been affordable housing, with Craven stating he’s lost some good firefighters simply because they couldn’t find a place to live in their price range.

“We don’t want to make that the driving force to losing great fire personnel in the state,” Heitkamp said.

Craven was extremely pleased Heitkamp decided to stop by. He said having a U.S. senator is an extremely rare occurrence, and he appreciates it.

“Any time that someone can make time to come here and look at what we’re doing and see where the federal dollars are being spent, that’s a great thing,” Craven said.

“For me, it’s critical. I’m on the Homeland Security Committee, which means that we’re part of this process of deciding,” Heitkamp said. “You hear people talk about where these resources go and when you can come back to Washington and say, ‘Look, in North Dakota we do it right. We’ve divided our state up, we have this resource but it’s not just me taking care of Minot. It’s a regional resource, everybody knows it’s here, everybody trains with the same group. This is truly what you want to have happen in the states in terms of interstate cooperation.'”