From Mountain Tops to Ocean Floors, Safe Practices Belong in Every Toolbox
Over its more than forty-year history, GCI has invested more than $4 billion in Alaska, including its massive Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA) network, which serves approximately 45,000 Alaskans in eighty-four rural communities.
Nearly two dozen of the network’s most-remote towers require refueling on an annual basis. “There’s no real access via roads, so we use helicopters to fly our fuel to the site,” explains GCI Senior Manager of Rural Network Operations & Maintenance Earl Merchant.
It’s clearly an operation with significant potential risks.
While some of the stations are within 5 to 6 miles of a nearby community, some are more than 55 or 60 miles away. Additionally, while some are situated in flat plains with “not a mountain in sight for 50, 60 miles,” according to Merchant, others are “on a mountaintop where the only place the helicopter can land is over on the edge, and if you walk forward you’ve got a 1,000-foot drop.”
Each site stores approximately 8,600 gallons of diesel fuel on the premises to run the stations and keep the network operating. Helicopters haul out fuel bladders with a capacity of 500 gallons that are filled to about 400 gallons, Merchant says, so each site requires several trips, the exact number depending on power use at the site.
GCI has been refueling the TERRA towers for more than a decade, and the actual process has been refined over the years. For example, early refueling required the fuel bladders to be suspended by a 100-foot line underneath the helicopter. In intervening years, GCI partner Bering Air commissioned a Huey helicopter capable of hauling the fuel within the helicopter instead of dangled below. “The number one benefit [of hauling internally], obviously, is the safety,” says Merchant. “You have the [internal] tank and then the double wall bladder, so there’s no way it’s going to fall out or spill, and everything is protected in there.” Additionally, the helicopter can now travel at a normal cruising speed, 100 miles per hour or so, instead of about half that, which reduces the amount of time the fuel is in the air.
Merchant says that a group of GCI employees who worked on the construction and installation of the TERRA network transitioned to the Rural Operations department at its completion, “and they have done an excellent job in training up new hires and bringing new people on.”
Beyond the actual skills needed to get diesel out of the helicopter and into the storage tank, training for those working on the refueling project covers a broad range of safety protocols. In addition to daily safety briefings, all refueling crew members are HAZMAT certified and take Spill Prevention, Control, and Counter-Measure training, as well as environmental and cultural sensitivity training.
“We are on Native lands,” Merchant explains, “and there’s a lot of artifacts and historical sites out there, such as cairns… [one of] our sites sits on one of those mountaintops, and we’re not even allowed to take photos.”
On-site workers are trained on how to keep their boots and the skids of the helicopters clean to ensure that invasive species are not transferred to or from any of the areas they touch. “We’re always having to be careful—wash our feet, make sure our bags don’t sit on the tundra—from one site to another,” Merchant says.
Crews are also trained on how to avoid harming local wildlife. Because of US Fish and Wildlife Service restrictions, “if we have animals with one 1.3 miles of the site, we cannot land. We have to turn around and wait 24 hours before we attempt to go back out,” Merchant says. “We also have to maintain [an elevation] of 1,500 feet above ground going to the sites to lessen the noise from the helicopters.”
Despite all their best efforts, animals still occasionally surprise the refuelers. “The guys actually landed on a site one year… and they were walking to the site and a musk ox came out from between the buildings,” Merchant says with a laugh. “One of the guys ended up on top of the building, and the helicopter took off. Everyone was ok,” he reports—including the musk ox.
“When it comes to safety, over the years we’ve learned what we need to do,” he says. “We’ve taken what’s required and made it better.”
GCI has never had an accident or a spill related to refueling TERRA, and in fact the company is spreading a heightened safety culture as operations take place year after year. “We’ve pulled into communities where we buy fuel or get fuel from a vendor and noticed that, out on the ramp, they may have a leaky hose and they’re just taping fuel-absorbent rags around it,” Merchant says, “and we’ve shut down the refuel process because of that. We say, ‘Hey, we don’t want anything leaking out here, even on the ramp.’”
While GCI’s refueling project is an annual, scheduled endeavor, Resolve Marine Alaska’s daily work is less predictable.
“We charter aircraft and different vessels, we do emergency response, we do commercial diving, [and] we offer marine construction and land-based construction services,” says Resolve Marine Alaska General Manager A.W. McAfee. “And in all that, I’d have to say the highest potential for someone being harmed is someone that’s not situationally aware.” From his experience, it’s not the task at hand that’s the highest contributor to accidents but the attention of those involved. “Whether you’re a commercial diver or a pilot or a laborer at the shipyard, if you are unable to recognize the hazard potential, you can’t control or mitigate the hazard.”
He says Resolve Marine has developed a “near-miss reporting culture,” in which it identifies potential hazards company-wide that if not mitigated properly could result in an incident. “We capture those near-misses globally at the company and then we share them with the different teams.”
Despite Resolve Alaska’s involvement with underwater operations or emergency response, many of the hazards it sees aren’t the kind that generally inspire sensational headlines. “Some of the information that we get through our reporting culture is as simple as crossing gangways.” Projects that are obviously hazardous—such as responding to a sinking vessel—get lots of scrutiny, “so the little things are where we need people to focus and do well,” McAfee explains.
Guiding that focus are daily pre-start meetings which always contain a conversation about safety, first running through positive news the team may have and then covering near-misses or incidents from the day before. “We’ll discuss those in an open forum, just to get everybody’s light switched on,” he says.
After the safety message and once the equipment has been put on, gangways safely crossed, and other daily hazards mindfully negotiated, Resolve Alaska employees do find themselves in remote locations dealing with hazardous materials in highly evolving situations. “We’re very good at coming in, assessing a scene, understanding the hazard potential, assessing the situation, and then mitigating any issues,” McAfee says. “Kind of like firemen that are fighting fires, the first thing they do is assess what’s burning—you don’t have people just running into a hazardous situation,” he says. “And we operate similarly.”
One of the first questions at any emergency scene is if the operation can safely go forward at all. “Conditions are constantly changing at a lot of our sites, especially emergency response sites.” McAfee explains, “Environment conditions as simple as the tide, wind, weather, or current—any of that has a tremendous effect on a lot of the places we work.” He says it’s about a 50/50 mix when the crew arrives at the site whether they’re able to move forward with the project or need to take a step back.
“We have people that have done this type of work, who are out leading teams, who have done it for thirty years, so they might not have been on this particular emergency or done this particular project before, but they’ve probably seen something similar and mitigated something similar. That enables us to not only assess quickly but allows for practical and pragmatic mitigation.”
Resolve Alaska’s focus on building a culture of safety is showing positive results. “Speaking for Alaska, 2021 was a fantastic year for us,” McAfee reports. “We had zero LTIs [lost time injuries]. Our safety culture has really taken a hold.”
He says 2022 is on track for a similar record. “We’ve done about 160 jobs this year, ranging from a couple hours to several months,” he says. “We don’t want to jinx it, and it’s a little premature, but this year’s looking really good also. Somehow we all get very superstitious whenever we talk about this,” he laughs.
It takes employees engaging in best practices for safety initiatives to really work, and McAfee says that starts with communication. “We have to have folks that are good communicators—that’s paramount to safe operations,” he says. “And in communicating, I mean both expressively communicating but also listening to leadership and listening to one another.”
For example, when Resolve Alaska responds to a casualty, it sends out a salvage master paired with a marine architect, who both work with the vessel master. “The responsibility of the vessel belongs to the vessel master; the responsibility of the operation belongs to the salvage master,” McAfee explains. A team of leaders work with each other to address the task at hand while ensuring every person on the job gets home safely, including stopping work if necessary.
McAfee says, “There’s no silver bullet for safety, there’s just not. It is a non-stop communication back-and-forth with the people that work for us, and as soon as we stop talking about it, it’s one of the first things that gets forgotten. We want to do things safely first, and if we can’t do it safely, then we shouldn’t do it.”