Safety Education & Training: Ways to Communicate and Stay Safe

By Andrew Donnachie, Contract Supervisor

The Pacific Northwest has often been described as one of the many wonders of the world. It boasts the greatest biomass per acre of anywhere on earth and facilitates innumerable hydroelectric power generation locations across Washington, Oregon, north Idaho, and north west Montana. It also has spectacular scenery year-round, which can be photographed on a smartphone and instantly uploaded to social media to invoke the envy of all. Or it will, once you travel the hour or so back to an area with cellphone service. Despite the marvel of modern technology and its capabilities, the land of Lewis and Clark may still be the final frontier for the cellphone network. Yet, depend on our cellphones we must!

Staying in communication with each other when we’re in the field working without cell service is one of the greatest challenges we face working in the utility vegetation management industry. With over 15,000 miles of hydro-generated high voltage transmission circuits spanning from West Yellowstone to the Olympic Peninsula and down to California, CNUC’s team of 11 consulting utility foresters (CUFs) brave the unyielding Pacific Northwest terrain every day to conduct their vegetation compliance inspections and quality control. Our work zone is as vast as it is dissuasive and cellular network coverage is predictably absent where it is needed most. And good communication is almost as critical as regular communication.

Our team members work remotely, starting every day from their homes. It’s practical, efficient, and somewhat unavoidable given the geography of the transmission network. Knowing the procedures for communication and making them habitual is an essential best practice that is taught during onboarding. Communication protocols are reinforced routinely with safety meetings and job briefings and are part of the methodology that helps ensure we all return home safely every day.

The check-in/check-out procedure is the foundation of our safety policy and is the crucial first step in the communication routine. CUFs will send their work plan to their lead/supervisor via email each morning which states their starting location and the direction in which they will proceed with their assignment. Thanks to the utility’s planimetric system of naming their circuits and numbering each transmission tower by its distance (in miles) from the initial substation, we have a powerful and intuitive navigational tool to plot the movement of our CUFs throughout the day.

For example, a starting location email will state, “OrangePH-RedValley-2 179/3 working AHOL.” This code tells us that our inspector is working in the transmission corridor that starts at the Orange Power House and ends at the Red Valley substation and they will be in the third span of the one hundred and seventy-ninth mile from the Orange Power House. ‘AHOL’ tells us that they are proceeding Ahead-On-Line, starting from mile 179 and proceeding to mile 180. Or they may state ‘BOL’, Back-On-Line, starting from mile 179 and proceeding to mile 178. From this simple string of names and numbers so much can be known about the location of our CUF who will be, undoubtedly, out of cellular network coverage for most of the day at that location.

More detailed information can be supplied with the check-in notification such as; weather and potential travel condition impediments, wildfire areas and current conditions, logging operations and corridor construction projects, to wildlife and sensitive habitat restrictions. By checking the multitude of apps on our smartphones which offer notifications about almost everything these days from wildfires to storms and road closures, the diligent CUF will know before they go and have alternative plans which will be regularly communicated as their specific conditions and circumstances change.

Check-out is the concluding part of our daily communication routine that confirms our team members have made it home safely from their intrepid excursions into the wild. But again, this is reliant on the cellphone network. Though some CUFs reside in rural locations where there is little network coverage, everyone has a means by which they will send a text message to a group thread that simply states ‘home’. Each team member’s home text is confirmed on a checklist as the working day slowly concludes. This helps to keep track of everyone checking in without having to rely on remembering who is home already and who is still out there. And, to avoid unnecessary concern, any team members who find themselves in traffic delays or situations of this nature will report that they will be checking in late.

But what if someone hasn’t checked in by the evening’s deadline and they haven’t reported any unusual change in circumstances for that day, such as a health issue or equipment failure? We are, after all, working on our own in the remote wilderness and forested areas of the Pacific Northwest where encounters with predatory animals, poisonous plants, changing weather and road conditions are regular occurrences. This is when supervisors will follow the next stage of the communication policy which consists of a multi-step process of investigation and discovery and concludes with contacting emergency services if necessary.

When direct contact cannot be made via phone call and text message with an indeterminate team member, the location of their vehicle will be searched using our vehicle GPS tracking system dashboard which is visible to the team Leads as well as the supervisor. The importance of a high-quality GPS tracking system, properly installed, cannot be overstated. But many of these systems in the market today also rely to some degree on the cellular network and are not impervious to the dead zone phenomena. Therefore, accuracy in location reporting may not be guaranteed from some remote locations.

To counterbalance these uncertainties and give our team members a definitive means of sending an emergency message that does not utilize the cellular network, all our CUFs are issued with a 406MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) as part of their personal protective equipment. These beacons are registered with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) system database by the individual user and their registration will contain their personal information, as well as the contact information for their team supervisor as the emergency contact. The beacons are compact, lightweight and easy to carry, as well as simple to test and activate. When activated, they send an emergency message with GPS location data via the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system to NOAA who, in turn, notifies the closest authorities to the reported location and a search and rescue mission will be launched.

Thankfully, none of us have encountered a situation where the supposed 100- yard accuracy of the PLB was put to the test, but the PLB is yet another essential means of communication our team members carry with them in the wilderness that can be depended on when all other methods cannot.

When it comes to ensuring the safety, reliability and integrity of the bulk electric system as it strides a complex path throughout the Pacific Northwest, regular and concise communication is paramount for any team charged with such a responsibility. Decision making can be greatly expedited by many factors, which include giving team members control over their working environment and providing the means and opportunity to communicate about their changing environment. Supervisors and team leads can set the tone for the ongoing dialogue but, ultimately, it is up to each one of us to engage frequently in the ongoing conversation that establishes a best practice as an unconscious habit.