Construction, mining, oil and gas drilling, and even some scientific and technical experimental ventures often place heavy industry and inherently hazardous work in locations far from conventional emergency response.
This article is targeted to the project managers, site superintendents, planners, and health and safety professionals who are charged with overseeing or assisting work that happens in remote locations. This could include residential construction crews working on a cabin, a mining company working on a new site, an oil well drilling crew working in a remote area, loggers developing a new cut, a road construction crew establishing access to a new mine, or any other industry or construction that is located far away from rapid response to emergencies.
How well an organization plans for emergencies that may occur at these locations can be the dividing line between tragedy and success story, whether an employee’s life is saved or lost, or if an operation and capital infrastructure is lost due to an incident. This article details the types of hazards site managers should plan for in rural areas, risk assessment, how rural emergency services operate, and how to work with those agencies to best plan for emergencies.
Remote industry sites generally present all the same hazards as those located in an urban area, with potentially some added hazards unique to rural areas. Common industrial injury types include slips, trips, and falls, objects in eyes, burns, dropped objects, and struck by incidents can all occur, and can become more serious if treatment is distant. Vehicle crashes, especially run-off-road and rollover crashes, can be common. Fires and explosions are possible, and a fire occurring at a remote industrial site has the potential to spread into the surrounding land, potentially turning a small localized fire into a large wildfire.
Extractive industries such as oil and gas drilling, mining, and tunneling can often present unique hazards, requiring specialized skills to mitigate complex and potentially extremely dangerous incidents. Industries also create some hazards of a more technical nature, such as confined spaces or elevated platforms, where local resources may be insufficient to handle the incident. Finally, medical emergencies remain an ever-present risk, and as some employees in these industries have less healthy lifestyles, this risk is likely more significant than would otherwise exist.
Capabilities of rural fire/EMS
The services provided by rural fire and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies in the United States are typically different than what would be expected in an urban area. An important distinction is that rural agencies are often staffed by individuals who volunteer their time to serve, as opposed to many urban agencies that employ staff full-time. Volunteer agencies typically have much smaller budgets, and correspondingly, often have less equipment and capability than their urban counterparts. While all agencies focus their training and capabilities to match their typical call load, rural call loads are typically small (fewer than a few hundred a year) and are often a mix of medical calls, vehicle crashes, and the very occasional fire. Due to the larger area covered, response times are often long (20 or more minutes), and staffing can be limited as well.
Fires and firefighting in rural areas is fundamentally different than in urban areas. For example, rural fires typically grow past flashover prior to fire department arrival and rural interventions are often defensive in the strategy of attack. Rural areas also often lack domestic water infrastructure, and therefore, fire hydrants are not present in many areas. This means water supply for fire attack is done via water tenders (or tankers).
Alternatively, fires where the structure is past saving are typically left to burn out and prevented from spreading. Rural fire departments often lack specialized training, equipment, and capabilities to manage technical rescue incidents, such as confined space rescues, trench collapses, or rope access.
EMS agencies and responses are also fundamentally different in rural areas from their urban counterparts. Rural EMS agencies can have a lower capability and capacity, often staffing their units at the Basic Life Support (BLS) level, capable of handling minor injuries and illnesses, but do not have the ability to deliver many medications or provide advanced intervention as would an Advanced Life Support (ALS) level response, as is typical in an urban area. Response times can be longer than in urban areas and transport times are often far longer, where definitive care or trauma centers can be hours away.
Rural response to critical patients often involves the use of aeromedical evacuation via helicopter air-ambulance services to reduce transportation time.
While the use of a helicopter for patient transport is a benefit to patient care, there are some significant limitations. Medical helicopters are typically visual flight only: while they can often fly at night, they are limited by bad weather conditions either at the incident scene or at any point between their base, the scene, and the receiving hospital. Helicopters often have a limits on the height and weights of the patient(s) they transport, and their range as well also varies based on air temperature and altitude. Helicopters also require flat, unobstructed landing areas to land and take off, the size of which can vary based on the responding aircraft.
Planning for an incident
Effective planning can make all the difference in turning the tide of an incident at a remote work site for the better. Conducting a detailed analysis of the potential incidents, like those listed above, is a critical first step in developing an effective emergency response plan for a project site. Ultimately this analysis will generate a risk register. To begin, first list all the potential incidents that may occur (no matter how far-fetched) and assign a reasonable estimate of the potential of that incident occurring. Then, independent of its likelihood, determine the consequence of the event. For any given event, the probability and consequence can be multiplied to create a quantitative risk estimate. The risks with the highest probabilities should be planned for and addressed first, followed by those with the highest consequence and moderate risk pairing. Then, think about what care or response would be needed (or what would you expect if you called 911), and what capabilities your site and personnel possess to mitigate the incident. Unless on-site employees have additional training, expecting them to do more than use a small fire extinguisher or to provide basic first aid is both risky and poor planning.
Once you have an idea of how incidents would reasonably be managed, make contact with the local fire department and EMS agencies, to let them know about your project and to inquire with them about what capabilities they have. Be clear with what the potential incidents on your project site include, and be detailed with the nature of the operation with them. Consider bringing their members (or officers) onto your site occasionally as it develops, so they become familiar with the site. This helps the fire department plan their response and potentially train for potential incidents on your site.
Most fire departments would be enthusiastic to both find out about new projects and to visit sites to make preincident plans. Also contact the air ambulance services that are routinely used by the local fire and EMS agencies to learn the specifics of their needs to respond to your site. If possible, construct and/or mark a landing zone that meets or exceeds the requirements for the largest helicopters that could serve your site. Communicate the location of this landing zone with the aeromedical service and with local Fire/EMS and be sure have those GPS coordinates handy and widespread where someone calling 911 can use them.
As project locations get further away from emergency response, on-site personnel become more responsible for handling emergencies on the site. Once a site is farther away than a few hours from an effective 911 response, relying on the local fire department and EMS agency (with no plan to at least initiate and start mitigating the emergency) can result in tragedy for staff and/or loss of the project site from a fire. Self-sufficiency in managing emergencies on a site is achieved with good planning, effective training, and the necessary equipment needed to mitigate potential incidents.
Training needed for a self-sufficient operation should match the hazards expected. Since medical care in rural areas is distant, and may be hours or more from arriving, it is ideal to have a staff member trained as an EMT and several others qualified in Tactical Emergency Combat Care (TECC) (the civilian equivalent to TCCC), or another equivalent training for managing trauma in an austere environment.
Training on wilderness emergency medical care (offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and others) is also a good option to be prepared for anticipated incidents, but the training would need to exceed the standard of first aid and CPR as typically required for urban project locations. From a fire suppression perspective, training all the crew members in using fire extinguishers is a baseline. Adding training on simple fire attack using water trucks and portable pumps can help ensure a site can contain small fires and prevent spread.
Training should also include how to mitigate special hazards on site, such as confined spaces or hazardous materials. Training on survival and mitigating environmental risks is often a good idea to help manage the needs if foul weather should descend on the site or supply to the site is otherwise cut off. Necessary equipment should also match the hazards expected, as well as the training of the personnel on site, and should be planned in detail to try and maximize overlap with other construction tasks and equipment.
Work at a remote location presents unique hazards and complications on typical hazards. Few good resources exist for how to plan for remote work, and often understate the risk and need for self-reliance. The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) provides good guidance on remote site work in the health and safety portion of their website, focused on exploration and research drilling projects for the mining industry, and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) published a text on Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments (2005).
For resources on training, the Rural Firefighting Handbook provides a good introduction on rural fire department operations, and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) provides training materials and resources on wildland fire. Consider consulting other project staff who have worked on similar rural projects, and learn how they managed incidents and what their lessons learned may be, and above all, be proactive and reach out to the local fire and EMS agencies before an emergency.
Potential incidents to plan for:
Considerations to discuss with local fire/EMS