An annual training offered to field personnel covers basic snowcat operation and winter weather survival techniques to ensure they can handle any scenario.

It’s an absolute must if you’re going to use the snowcats. It’s a great refresher for those who have prior experience, and it’s good for the people who don’t.

 Lyle Erickson, lineman

Packed into a snowcat winter vehicle, Bonneville Power Administration employees use GPS navigation units and other tools as they make their way through wintery conditions near Tumalo Mountain in Deschutes County, Oregon. They're in training, learning how to use safety principles in the field to survive severe winter conditions.

Since 2018, BPA's Technical Training Center has worked with Enviro-Tech International, a specialist in survival and safety training, to offer Safe Snow Vehicle Operation and Cold Weather Survival Training to Bonneville line workers, power system control personnel and mechanics.

Technical Training's Michael Portemont has coordinated the training with husband-and-wife duo Randy and Kay Gerke of Enviro-Tech since the annual opportunity began six years ago, and he's helping get the training back on course following the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A former BPA power system craftsman himself, Portemont said he used snowcats regularly to access certain job sites. A small cabin on top of tracked wheels, snowcats are the go-to vehicle for field crews navigating winter weather conditions. However, there is always a possibility of equipment failure mid-trip.

On one occasion, Portemont said his snowcat broke down on the way to a site, forcing him and his partner to make the hike back to safety. “We had a couple safety incidents," he said. “Snowcats rolling off trailers, breaking down and guys getting stuck." Incidents like these highlighted a need for the agency to have a training that covered basic snowcat operation along with winter weather survival techniques.

The Gerkes have been helping coordinate and run survival trainings since 1978. Since 1989, they have done similar winter survival trainings with offices like the Oregon Department of Transportation, tailoring the trainings to meet exact needs.

“Sometimes they require more winter survival training while others require more technical training like snowcat operation," the Gerkes shared.

While the basic curriculum stays the same group to group, time spent on certain aspects of the training differs depending on the experience levels of attendees.

“We also want to adapt to the needs and interests of a certain group," Randy Gerke said.

Starting in January, BPA's training program offers six sessions limited to 10 participants each. Participants spends four days at a site near Tumalo Mountain and Mount Bachelor in Central Oregon.

The first day is spent in the classroom, where participants learn about topics ranging from snowcat operation and safety to navigation and survival skills. The next three days are spent out in the field putting those skills to use. For the snowcat portion, attendees learn about the vehicle's features, proper securing techniques for hauling the vehicles and driving techniques for the field.

“It's an absolute must if you're going to use the snowcats," said lineman Lyle Erickson, who worked closely with Portemont to coordinate the survival training pre-COVID. “It's a great refresher for those who have prior experience, and it's good for the people who don't."

For power system control field engineer Ciara Brandt, driving the snowcat was a new endeavor, and she was able to get significant practice time in the driver's seat.

“It's not like we were going along a transmission right-of-way," Brandt said. “You're making your own path as you go." Through the training, Brandt said she walked away with the proper knowledge on how to operate the heavy-duty vehicle if the need ever arose.

While the class does its best to avoid snowcat-related incidents, Portemont said equipment breakdowns during the training happen every year. In the most recent training, two snowcats broke down within minutes of each another.

“Our field crews were able to problem-solve in real time on this, and they were able to make the repairs," Portemont said. “This class really prepares you for when things go sideways out there." He said that past training incident reports like snowcat breakdowns have been implemented into the training for future classes.

Transmission Field Services Operations and Maintenance manager Nathan Seabury helped support the training in the Redmond district. “I definitely see the work as vital for the work that a lot of PSC, substation maintenance and Transmission Line Maintenance folks do on a regular basis," Seabury said.

He said the Redmond district has started yearly refresher courses that build off the existing training.

“The skillsets that are being trained there are so vital," he said. “We want to make sure someone that goes a year without operating a snowcat gets a chance annually to refresh those skills and review materials from the class."

For next year's training, Portemont said concrete dates are not set yet but will follow the January through February timeline.

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