Safety services follow industry into the wild
How advances by rescue firms are saving lives on industrial frontiers
Communication specialists at the STARS emergency link centre connect multiple calls to facilitate emergency response
Photograph courtesy of STARS / Mark Mennie
Dan Knapp gets serious when oilfield work turns ugly. In the budding Montney and Horn River shale gas plays in northeastern British Columbia, remote work sites are as common as petroleum-specific infrastructure is rare. Keeping workers safe in off-grid locations is a tall order.
The large distances between oil and gas well sites in these rapidly developing basins and the urban centers where hospitals and medical personnel can treat serious injuries make co-ordinating rescues especially hard. Ask Knapp, manager of business development at the Alberta Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society’s (STARS) Emergency Link Centre (ELC), about the number-one difficulty involved in safeguarding isolated work sites and he answers without pause: “The remoteness.”
The ELC is a 24-hour communications center established with funding from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in 1996. The service allows companies to register remote work sites in a database and features technology that automatically sends a distress message if a remote fieldworker gets immobilized.
The society can reach some northern locations flying from its base in Grande Prairie, but Knapp says the growing numbers of operations chasing shale gas payloads in the far reaches of B.C., north of Fort Nelson, are out of reach for even the organization’s high-tech fleet of helicopters. Chances that a third-party unit can aid in a remote rescue are greatly enhanced if sites are registered with the ELC database. Knapp recalls a camp cook working north of Fort Nelson who went down with a ruptured tumor in -50°C temperatures.
Because the work site was registered with the ELC, the woman’s location was immediately flagged and a chartered helicopter was dispatched. The helicopter transferred the patient to a fixed-wing aircraft that flew the critical last stretch to a hospital in Edmonton. “A lot of people call in and they can’t even remember their name, let alone directions to where they are. So by pre-registering, we have all that information,” Knapp says. The industrial safety net is particularly useful “if somebody gets hit in the head with a drill stem and they’re lying in the snow out in the middle of the bush somewhere,” Knapp adds.
Two new STARS helicopters scheduled to arrive this summer will bolster the agency’s current fleet of five machines. Knapp says the new aircrafts can fly 25 per cent faster and 50 per cent farther than the old models without refueling. That means they can fly from Fort McMurray oil sands mega-mines to Edmonton in about an hour.
More than 60,000 work sites register each year with the ELC database and 96 per cent of them are energy-industry related. Of the 100 industry medical emergencies STARS responds to each year, 55 per cent are trauma calls and 45 per cent are medical calls. Not every call is a do-or-die situation. “There’s often this misconception that in the industry you see all this trauma and it’s life and death decisions,” says Dean Constantini, vice-president of operations at Park Ambulance Service Ltd., a Calgary-based company with more than 45 years of industry experience.
Dan Knapp is manager of business development at the STARS emergency link centre
Photograph courtesy of STARS / Mark Mennie
“But we see colds and flu, lumps and bumps, and strains and sprains more than anything else in our day-to-day operations,” Constantini says.
While STARS responds to emergencies and facilitates remote rescues, Park employs on-site medics who provide everyday health care to keep workers on the job. The company got its start in 1965. Founder Ken Muir initially set up shop as an ambulance service provider in Banff National Park. In 1969 the company’s focus shifted to providing an advanced level of care on industrial sites in isolated areas. Early clients incl-uded Panarctic Oils Ltd., which operated in the Canadian Arctic. But business today is concentrated among oil, gas and mining outfits in Western Canada.
Muir, who is the company’s president, marvels at how far technology has advanced in the last half-century. When the firm got its start, the sole means of communication was a single sideband radio that was intermittent at best. “It’s pretty incredible seeing things that we dreamt of come to be,” he says.
The march of technology has created new industry niches in the safety-service business. Calgary-based GEOTrac International Inc. started in 2003 to fill an industrial gap. While oil and gas exploration and production was forging into remote locations, wireless communication networks were slow to follow suit. GEOTrac uses global positioning systems to help companies keep tabs on fleets of heavy-duty vehicles. The service includes a personal safety monitor meant for personnel in remote locations who are working in isolation. The monitor has a distress button that will call for emergency services in the event of an accident, as well as a built-in motion sensor.
At Park Ambulance Service Ltd., Constantini notes that administering remote medical services is a tough job. Like the workers they attend to, medics must spend long stretches away from home and adjust to conditions on the fly. “I’ve had to wait 16 hours for a flight up in the High Arctic,” he says.
The demands of the job can make hiring qualified staff difficult. Oil and gas firms require expert care in environments that are constantly changing, and competition for medical personnel is stiff. That’s particularly the case in Alberta, where nurses and emergency medical technician shortages are chronic. “The biggest challenge we really have is in acquiring quality personnel,” Constantini says.
And providing a service for the oil and gas industry also means dealing with the ups and downs of a volatile sector. Constantini’s company saw a significant drop in activity during the financial and energy-price contraction of 2008-09. The company even came close to closing its doors. But facing challenges and overcoming them is the norm in this industry, and Constantini says Park Ambulance Service shares a bit of the wildcat mindset with its clients. “That challenge is a nice thing to have because I’m not coming into an office every day where I’m focused on the same thing over and over again.”