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Occupational and Survival Training

by Apr 10, 2023Magazine, Professional Services

Wilderness Emergency Medical Education teaches group response activities in which a team leader directs the emergency response to a crisis scenario. These scenarios give students a chance to practice emergency skills and desensitize themselves to a situation they may find uncomfortable or frightening.

Wilderness Emergency Medical Education

Employers are compelled by regulations and their own moral standards to prioritize the health of their employees. For those employees whose work requires that they manage bad weather, remote worksites, aggressive wildlife, or other hazards, occupational and survival training can give them the tools they need to get home safe every day.

Shane with snow machine and gear

Alaska Communications delivers in-house training based on its own developed health and safety curriculum supplemented by other third-party instructors.

Alaska Communications

Survival training sounds ominous for workers who simply want to ply their trade in Alaska.

Which is why Learn to Return owner Brian Horner no longer refers to his service as survival training and has rebranded his company as LTR Training Systems.

The term “occupational training” better describes the specialized scenarios developed for each industry he works with, Horner says, as defined by US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Lessons include scenarios with uncontrollable variables that students will face while on the job, like bad weather, aggressive wildlife, an emotional fellow employee having a bad day, or someone else making an unsafe decision.

“It’s easier to stay out of trouble than get you out of trouble,” says Horner. “Preparation is a big part of occupational training. Introducing people to intense scenarios and desensitizing them to those moments prevents them from panicking should a problem arise.”

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LTR has provided occupational training for the Federal Aviation Administration, US Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, and Alaska energy and telecom companies.

Other companies handle training internally. Udelhoven Oilfield System Services uses third-party trainers for a small fraction of employee prep, according to corporate safety manager Brad Hill. As a general contractor providing specialized fabrication, construction, and maintenance support for Cook Inlet and North Slope oil field development, Hill says Udelhoven employees receive occupational training that applies specifically to the job they regularly perform.

“All our workers receive OSHA health and safety training that includes chemical safety, hazard identification, fall protection, fire prevention, and more,” says Hill. “Additional training like excavation safety and respiratory protection depends on their actual position.”

A bit more intense than “here’s where the coffee pot is” training at the average workplace, but then again, whatever the training is called, survival is at stake.

“When we added fixed wireless as one of our last-mile technologies, it meant our techs were now climbing tall towers to install equipment… We needed to incorporate tower training into our safety training portfolio for applicable team members.”

—Shawna Watson
Business Continuity, Emergency Management, and Safety Manager, Alaska Communications

Far From Medical Care

LTR Training Systems offers specialized educational programs providing knowledge, experience, and confidence in emergency situations.

LTR Training Systems

The menu of courses at LTR in Anchorage includes Confined Space Entry and Rescue, Helicopter Underwater Egress, and Wilderness Safety Leader for bear guards. Classes run through scenarios for plane crashes, sinking ships, and cold weather survival. During an 8-hour training day, students might be dunked in a pool, flipped over in a crash simulator, or face down a row of grizzly-shaped targets.

Medical training is also available, beyond the first aid offered by the American Red Cross, which is geared for stabilizing patients until paramedics arrive in a matter of minutes. Delayed Care First Aid assumes help won’t arrive for more than an hour, and Wilderness Survival Medicine spends two days teaching how to care for patients for at least that long.

Extended first aid is the specialty of Wilderness Emergency Medical Education (WEME), a Palmer-based training service. Company owner Dorothy Adler, who began teaching as a mountain climbing guide in McCarthy, says her classes are designed for assessing, responding, and treating injury and illness when hospital care is an hour or more away.

“In Alaska, that scenario happens just driving between Palmer to Fairbanks,” says Adler.

She says it’s become an industry standard for employees to take some form of wilderness first aid. WEME offers basic training in addition to more extensive courses that cover both remote land and maritime scenarios faced by Alaska’s workforce and recreationists alike. Adler’s earliest clients in 2007 were individuals and a few professional groups; over the years, she’s seen a growing number of companies and organizations contacting her for third-party training. She has worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, military units from Fort Wainwright, trail crews, surveying groups, and Native corporations. She also teaches Youth Wilderness First Aid and Youth Safety Education, something she sees as a vital preparation for Alaska’s future workforce and recreationists.

Technology has evolved so that people can contact emergency medical services easier than before, says Adler, from deeper in the Bush. However, it still takes time for services to arrive on the scene, which means people need to be prepared with knowledge and supplies to manage trauma. WEME maintains a good relationship with LifeMed Alaska, one of the emergency services that transport people from remote locations to nearby hospitals by ground or air. Her extended wilderness emergency training includes scenarios where people need to stabilize a patient for helicopter transport.

Back in the day, a technician traveling to a remote area would say to colleagues, “If you haven’t heard from me by X time, call the troopers,” observes Shawna Watson, manager of business continuity, emergency management, and safety for Alaska Communications. The Anchorage-based telecom now provides satellite phones and other emergency communication devices to its workers. She says security advances have also helped Alaska Communications employees monitor remote facilities with cameras and track each time a door is opened.

Internal vs. Third-Party Training

Group Evacuation

Wilderness Emergency Medical Education teaches group response activities in which a team leader directs the emergency response to a crisis scenario. These scenarios give students a chance to practice emergency skills and desensitize themselves to a situation they may find uncomfortable or frightening.

Wilderness Emergency Medical Education

Like Udelhoven, Alaska Communications conducts most of its training internally, supplemented by contract resources. Since employees work statewide, Watson says the biggest training challenges are logistical. She says virtual training helps fill this gap, but in some cases, they send in-person training resources to teams to meet them where they are.

Hill believes in-person training is more important than ever, especially for inexperienced workers. He feels the transition from classroom to computer training makes it more difficult to assess the level of understanding employees have of the material, even if they passed all the required tests.

“In that sense, mentoring with a more experienced worker becomes extremely valuable, as does frequent conversations with supervisors who can ensure employees understand what is expected of them,” says Hill.

Neither classroom nor computer screen can fully prepare students for the elements. Depending on the time of year, employees face inclement weather that can drop to -40°F in the winter and rise to 90° in the summer. Watson says Alaska Communications technicians don’t stop working when it’s cold, so the company trains and equips them with appropriate gear for cold weather. This also applies to heavy snowfall, which has occurred a lot more in recent years.

“Sometimes our crews arrive at a job site to find they have to spend several hours unburying our facilities,” says Watson.

Inclement weather potentially creates transportation barriers, especially for Bush technicians who experience weather-related travel cancellations. Bush technicians are trained for extended stays in a remote community, bringing everything they need, including extra food and personal supplies, sleeping bag, satellite phone, cash, and more.

Udelhoven likewise makes sure employees take extensive training on how to handle cold weather in Alaska—or the heat employees experience at their Texas worksites. The company follows up this training with frequent safety meetings that remind employees of safety protocols.

Alaska Communications’ monthly topical training ranges from winter conditions, fire and electrical hazards, and chemical hazards to power tools, fall protection, trenching and excavation, and more. It also performs all employee mandatory training on topics from active shooter and fire safety to cybersecurity. Watson says the telecom weaves safety messages into internal communication as part of its safety culture, keeping messages seasonally appropriate, covering topics from wildfire safety and winter weather driving to cooking safety and fireworks safety.

It’s a long Way Down

For internal training, Alaska Communications designed its own comprehensive safety manuals, in addition to implementing best practice resources from industry leaders.

“We use the CPR training program from the American Heart Association,” says Watson, “but we also team up with union and industry experts for specific training, like tower climbing and fall protection.”

Watson adds that Alaska Communications’ safety training program is designed to meet the unique needs of the state and the overall industry. Her department regularly asks for feedback from employees and adapts training resources to meet their needs. Changes in technology and changes within the industry also influence the type of training assigned.

“For example, when we added fixed wireless as one of our last-mile technologies, it meant our techs were now climbing tall towers to install equipment,” says Watson. “We needed to incorporate tower training into our safety training portfolio for applicable team members.”

Horner has seen similar demand at LTR. In recent years, he’s found LTR providing more “fall protection” training that applies to warehouse and office employees as much as it does to those who scale steep terrain or climb tall trees and towers.

“Falling is one of the leading causes of death in the workplace,” says Horner. “And it isn’t just falling from big heights, but falling down stairs, off ladders or platforms.”

Fake Blood and Burns

In cases where Alaskans find themselves far away from professional medical services, it’s beneficial to know how to prepare for emergencies and respond in case of an illness or injury.

Wilderness Emergency Medical Education

The know-how acquired from occupational training becomes part of the tool kit that keeps employees happy and healthy.

“The most important benefit is keeping our employees safe so they can return home to their families in the same condition they arrived,” says Watson.

That importance justifies the intensity of the training. Adler says people who have not spent much time outdoors or never received formal training are overwhelmed on the first day of her WEME courses by the amount of information they need to remember. She says her method is to introduce extreme scenarios to teach how to handle them in a calm assertive manner. By going through simulations, Adler says students end up much more comfortable with the information by the second day.

“They are also more comfortable working through any fear or anxiety they might experience when helping someone with a traumatic injury,” says Adler. “We use fake blood and burns that look realistic to desensitize them to injuries that may look scary.”

In group settings, Adler says it’s common to have a student who is hesitant to take on a leadership role during simulations. Adler says she will often set up a scenario in which the leader becomes injured, which forces quieter students to step up as the second in command. In most cases, those students perform in leadership roles perfectly fine; they just needed an opportunity to prove it to themselves.

“One woman thanked me and said she needed that opportunity,” says Adler. “Part of my job as an instructor is to pay close attention to each student and give them the help they need.”

Horner says reactions to occupational training depend on a student’s age and experience and the company culture. He says some groups that LTR trains are eager to learn, and others are more difficult to motivate. More seasoned employees are sometimes harder to teach if they feel they already know the answers, while some younger employees struggle to deal with the uncomfortable emotions that come with an intense scenario.

“We really can’t bend training so that people never feel uncomfortable,” says Horner. “How you react to things is often what determines what will save your life.”

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The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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