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Texas council to vote on contract to train firefighters on gas well accidents

ARLINGTON, Texas -- With more than 300 natural gas wells in the city, Arlington plans to begin sending firefighters for specialized training from a Houston firm in techniques to protect neighborhoods better during well fires, gas releases and other industry-related incidents.

The City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a $96,000 contract with Wild Well Control of Houston to train at least 48 firefighters and six fire inspectors over two years.

As soon as next month, Arlington firefighters are expected to be fighting simulated gas well fires, oil leaks and gas leaks at Wild Well Control's training field, Assistant Fire Chief Jim Self said.

Besides giving firefighters information to keep themselves safe, Self said, the training will give the city a better understanding of what it can do to mitigate damage to the well site and neighborhoods until the company's control team arrives.

"We need to understand the impact to our neighborhoods if something happens so we can manage it earlier," Self said. "There is going to be a gap when our firefighters arrive on the scene and when the gas well control company caps the well."

The training is part of the Fire Department's new well emergency preparedness and response program, which is being funded by fees charged to the natural gas industry. In April, the council approved a $2,397 annual fee per well to generate an estimated $800,000 a year for more firefighters, training and equipment to prevent and better respond to well emergencies.

The fee, the first of its kind in the Barnett Shale, is being fought by two trade organizations. The Texas Oil & Gas Association and the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association sued a district court in Tarrant County in May to prevent Arlington from implementing what they deem an unnecessary and discriminatory new tax on wells.

The associations call the well program, which will add inspections at well sites, unnecessary given the industry's safety record in the Barnett Shale. The city has also repeatedly turned down well operators' offers of free training, according to the suit and industry representatives.

Fire officials have said first responders in an urban environment need training that is more advanced than the cursory site awareness classes the industry offers.

Though the fee has not been implemented, the Fire Department has hired a well safety and security inspector as well as a captain to oversee the preparedness and response program.

More firefighters are expected to be hired next budget year.

Self said the training is about enhancing public safety and reducing the impact a well disaster could have on a company.

"The sooner we can bring these incidents under control and minimize the damage, then we can get the industry back in production," Self said. "That is money in their pocket. A lot of our well sites have multiple wells. We want to keep it to one well so the operator doesn't lose the entire pad site."

(This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.)

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