Emergency response adapts to remote ND oil patch

JOSH WOOD, Associated Press
In this May 14, 2014 photo, a helicopter lands at a drilling rig in the badlands near the town of Mandaree, N.D. Some emergency workers in North Dakota are looking to incorporate practices long familiar to offshore drilling platforms, such as the utilization of onsite paramedics and helicopter evacuations, in the remote oil fields. (AP Photo/Josh Wood)
Copyright 2014, The Associated Press

MANDAREE, N.D. (AP) — Troy Easton traded his career as a flight paramedic for a drilling rig job in Wyoming six years ago, pulling in three times what he used to make. From Texas to Wyoming's hilly gas patch, he noticed that much of the nation's resurgent oil and gas industry's activity was taking place in remote areas. That worried the paramedic in him.

"I started thinking what if I get hurt? Where's the ambulance?" he said.

One day he had to drive himself to the hospital — an hour away — with symptoms of a heart attack. It turned out to be an arrhythmia from which he recovered. It was an inspiration for his current position as owner of Easton Health and Safety, whose paramedics serve remote oil facilities.

Out here, ambulances can take hours to get patients to the hospital, reducing the chance of survival in serious cases. So Easton's team uses onsite paramedics and helicopters to shave time and save lives — tactics long the standard for offshore drilling platforms.

"It's the same similarities," he said. "It's just harder to get a boat out here."

North Dakota is the second-biggest oil producer in the nation and first in worker death rates: 17.7 fatalities in 2012 per 100,000 employees and 104 per 100,000 in the oil, gas and mining sector — more than six times the national average, according to the AFL-CIO.

Many oil wells and rigs down dirt roads, miles from pavement and cellphone reception: Virtual islands in bad weather. The few towns that dot the oil patch are far apart and few have hospitals capable of handling serious trauma.

But oil companies still rely on dialing 911 in emergencies. Outfits like Easton's are "not prevalent at all," said Tom Nehring, EMS division director at the state's Department of Health.

Dr. Kurt Papenfus, medical director for the firm Safety Management Systems in Colorado and a member of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's oil and gas extraction council, agreed. While onsite medics are the norm for offshore rigs and the most remote onshore environments, like Alaska's North Slope, the practice is still relatively rare and usually limited to big oil companies, he said.

More companies need to consider it, Papenfus said.

WPX Energy has hired Easton's crew to provide emergency response to its sites on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Easton said paramedics have an average response time of 11 minutes to WPX sites in an area where it can take an hour or more for local paramedics to respond.

"We're the cavalry," said Easton's wife and fellow responder, Marla. "At least we're trying to be."

The team has responded to more than three dozen calls since March, some of which could have otherwise been fatalities, Easton said.

One patient had his arm ripped off on a rig.

Another flipped his vehicle was found blue from a lack of oxygen and vomiting blood. "He would have been dead if he relied on local EMS," said paramedic Jennifer Young.

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