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Mock scenarios prepare linemen for emergencies in the field
2/26/2015 12:00 AM
Communication is more challenging under duress, so knowing how to connect with people is key. Smell, hearing and taste shut down, so to respond more effectively, linemen incorporated communication through touch and vision, which are senses that are amplified during an emergency.
A little bit of stage makeup, ketchup and fake skin helped linemen get into character for roles they never intend to play in real life. Just as they would in an actual crisis at a field location, the “injured” linemen relied on the only available emergency responders around: their crew.
It was part of a new advanced first aid training course for Transmission Line Maintenance workers. In January, the last of BPA’s 17 TLM crews – Kalispell and Idaho Falls – completed the training.
In one scenario, several linemen came upon an unconscious co-worker, Kurt Marsh, who was caught under a work truck. They snapped into action, remembering the morning’s lessons, part of their two-day certification course in Butte, Mont.
Foreman I Kurt Marsh, TLM Kalispell, serves as the subject for wrapping head wounds while trainer and ER nurse practitioner, Alexandra Farnsworth, Priority 1 Air Rescue, describes the process.
A trainer stood at a distance, observing the linemen as some evaluated their injured co-worker and another went to turn off the humming truck.
It’s critical that line crews know how to quickly and effectively respond in a medical emergency, says Foreman III Mike Stolfus from TLM Kalispell. Most of BPA’s 15,000 miles of transmission lines are in rural, mountainous, heavily wooded and secluded areas, miles from clinics and hospitals. An ambulance can easily be an hour away.
Even if a medical facility was nearby, ambulances don’t typically travel on unpaved roads or head into unfamiliar rights of way. This puts the responsibility on the line crews to hike, drive or transport the injured person out of the area and reach emergency personnel.
When the crew members began their head-to-toe check of Marsh, foreman I for the Kalispell crew, they saw a shard of glass in his forehead. They determined it was not life-threatening and continued to move their attention down the lineman’s body.
As they opened Marsh’s overalls and pulled up his shirt, the Kalispell crew gasped at a convincingly real discolored liquid that was seeping out of his chest. Guided by their earlier training, the linemen realized Marsh’s chest was taking in air through the wound. When this happens, air puts extra pressure on the lungs, and the lung can collapse.
It’s a life threatening scenario, but the Kalispell crew knew how to react. They pulled a “sucking chest wound” patch from their medical bag and sealed the injury so the wound was protected but the trapped air could escape.
During the first day of mock incidents, lineman Eric Sutherland, TLM Kalispell, fakes a climbing injury where his leg is impaled with a stick.
After the injuries were dressed, the linemen carefully rolled Marsh onto a backboard and strapped him in. The four-person team lifted him up on the count of three and moved him to the truck to haul him out of the area. A trainer hollered the scenario was over and debriefed the crew.
The evolution of BPA emergency equipment and first aid courses
BPA is continuously learning and updating the way it outfits trucks with emergency supplies for employees who do field work.
In nostalgic military fashion, until the 2000s, BPA kept stretchers in work trucks. Those were replaced with backboards in 2012.
In 2011, BPA linemen began annual training for long line-short haul rescue, an efficient method to evacuate an injured person by helicopter when an aircraft is already on site. Through that training process, crews also identified the need for flexible stretchers, which can be combined with a backboard for a vertical rescue.
Lineman Willy Wilson, TLM Kalispell, lets co-workers brace his neck during the two-day training course that gives linemen the skills and supplies to dress critical wounds
The next step of improvements includes adding foam to the backboards, which will make a bumpy ride through the wilderness a little more comfortable and bearable for the injured person.
BPA and TLM crews also identified ways to evolve their life-saving skills. Traditionally, crews were trained for basic CPR and the use of automatic external defibrillators, but the linemen recognized they needed more knowledge and equipment, due to the extended response time of emergency personnel.
First aid duffel bags kept on primary work trucks are currently being reviewed and replenished. However, when line crews need to hike into their work site, the equipment in their trucks isn’t always accessible. During the advanced first aid training, the crews identified the value and effectiveness of a personal kit for treating critical wounds. The kit is small and light enough to hook to each person’s existing gear, so every lineman can be prepared when tramping to the transmission line or climbing up a steel tower. The kits will be available to certified employees by spring.
“It was a weakness,” says Chief Safety Officer Brad Bea. “We had several incidents that occurred over the years that highlighted the need (for advanced training).”
Bea says part of the continuous learning from emergency first aid training and retrofitting vehicles is learning to prevent the injuries in the first place.
“We learned from the incidents and are now moving to get in front of them,” adds Bea, who¬ – with the full support of BPA administration – is spearheading a shift in the way BPA approaches safety by considering infrastructure design, human performance and culture.
Reality check for TLM Kalispell
The Kalispell crew is one group who knows firsthand how minutes count when helping a co-worker.
Tony “Peach” Wohlsein and the Kalispell crew were in Thompson Falls, Mont., during the summer of 2010 when Wohlsein found a wasps’ nest in the lacing of a steel tower leg and was stung on the back of the neck.
Classroom training followed by mock scenarios prepares TLM Kalispell and Idaho Falls linemen for emergencies in the field during a two-day certification course in Butte, Mont., in January.
Wohlsein, who is also allergic to honey bees and bald faced hornets, is at high risk for anaphylactic shock and carries two epinephrine pens. He climbed down the lattice tower, pulled out the epinephrine applicator and injected himself with the drug. But the red bumpy hives and swelling continued.
His allergic reaction was so severe that he still needed immediate medical assistance. As a rule of thumb, Wohlsein keeps two epinephrine pens and over-the-counter allergy medication on him when he works, and his crew is well aware that he needs to reach a hospital within 30 minutes of being stung.
Since the line crew was in the sparsely populated mountains of Montana, two crew members had to drive their co-worker to the closest clinic, 15 miles away.
“The guys moved me from the truck to the clinic, but by that point I had blacked out,” says Wohlsein. “The clinic couldn’t help so they called the closest hospital in Plains, Mont., which was another 25 miles out. First responders arrived at the clinic and took me to their emergency room.”
The value of advanced first aid training
Foreman III Mark Hadley from Idaho Falls underscored the need for crews to have training for responding to life threatening wounds.
“Usually when something goes wrong, it’s something pretty bad,” explains Hadley. “If something happens, you have the confidence to help your co-worker, so everybody gets to go home. Exposing me to this (style of training), I feel more comfortable if I ever need to get involved.”
Lineman Matt Clay from Idaho Falls said the training was realistic and that he valued the mock scenarios.
“It was hands on, which gives you the confidence you need. When I was in the Army, I hated (first aid training),” says Clay, who served in a medevac unit from 1999 to 2005. “It was so repetitive, but when I saw somebody who needed it, I didn’t freeze, I just did what we needed.”
These lifesaving skills prepare employees 24/7 as well. If a family member falls into a pool or a couple sustains a car crash, BPA linemen across the agency have the skills to volunteer and help.
“These guys mitigate the risk as much as they can, but if something happens they’ll know how to take care of it better and possibly save somebody’s life,” says Craig Froh from TLM Technical Services. “They’re getting better tools and more knowledge, which will provide a better outcome if something were to happen.”
As with any emergency training, the goal is to be prepared, says Froh. “I’m glad they’re getting the training, but I hope they never have to use it, ever.”
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