How Seattle City Light Personnel Became Fire and Rescue Experts

In “The Great Northwest,” a hydroelectric project owner partnered with local communities to improve the level of safety and security in and around its facilities by taking the initiative to train company personnel to regulatory standards as emergency responders.

By Michael Haynes and Cody Watson

Mike Haynes is director of Seattle City Light’s Power Production Division. Cody Watson is the Skagit Fire Brigade chief.

Is it difficult to imagine living life near Seattle, Wash., while picturing the incredible majesty and beauty of the area’s forests, lakes and mountains? The answer is likely, “No.” But, within Mother Nature’s raw and expansive beauty, great potential for injury exists to people who on a daily basis must live and work in the area’s remote locations from which power is generated to Seattle.

Seattle City Light, a company that first began in 1910, needed to improve its abilities for emergency response to situations near its dams and hydroelectric projects, “which are still the heart of Seattle City Lights water storage and generating facilities.”


In total, the Skagit Hydroelectric Project provides about 711 MW of electricity generating capacity for Seattle and surrounding communities from its location 120 miles northeast of Seattle. The project consists of three dams; Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam; four powerhouses; and the company-owned towns of Newhalem and Diablo.

A Stokes basket is a metal wire or plastic litter used widely by search and rescue teams. Included straps in the baskets secure people during transport to safety.

Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historical Places, the project produces about 21% of Seattle’s power. The rugged mountains within North Cascades National Park surround Skagit. A seasonal highway is the only roadway able to transport people and resources and the most remote parts of the area are 64 difficult miles away from the nearest cardiac and trauma hospital.

Access to a timely and effective emergency response system is a priority for park employees and their families because they live and work in such an isolated location.

For more than 55 years, the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade has been organized to safeguard people, property and infrastructure at the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and visitors to the North Cascades National Park. The brigade primarily performs fire fighting, emergency management services, and rescue operations.

The Skagit Technical Rescue Team (STRT) was formed in 2008 to supplement the Fire Brigade to ensure the safety of both employees and visitors to the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. With capabilities to enter confined spaces and areas not accessible by walking, technicians are available to safeguard victims and provide aid to unusual rescue situations that are beyond the capability of an average fire department response. This application of skills, knowledge, and equipment safely resolves unique or complex rescue situations without waiting for external resources.

The formation of this team takes a strong employee and management commitment. When an employee signs on, he or she assumes personal accountability for keeping up with a rigorous training program. Management support is essential in order to sustain the necessary funding and resources to maintain these programs. We decided several years ago there was no way to accomplish this level of service on an ad hoc basis, thus necessitating a formal program with funding and governance.

Commitment to safety

The utility recently hired a full-time Skagit Fire Brigade chief. The position incorporates knowledge of fire service and power generation practices. The goal is to improve both skill sets by reducing life safety and property losses. The chief’s primary function is to serve as an incident commander, firefighter, emergency medical technician (EMT) and rescue technician, as well as maintain compliance with state regulatory agencies. The position also oversees the department-wide training program, departmental records and equipment purchase recommendations and develops reports for management and members of an operational nature.

Business needs are also met by having the position do secondary functions. The chief inspects and maintains automated external defibrillators (AED), fire extinguishers, first aid kits and eyewash stations. Prior to the creation of this position, external vendors performed these duties.


Each month, an experienced and qualified instructor serves as the primary training source for fire department members. Training topics include: fire suppression, emergency medical services, automobile extrication, emergency vehicle operations, and mass casualty incidents.

A certified instructor conducts annual three-day refresher training to update skills and tactics to current standards. Additional training may be required for skills enrichment (e.g. specialized radio training, Incident Command System, medical, etc.)

The fire brigade and fire department outline minimum training requirements. This provides a good foundation for training, but more in-depth training on certain hazards is essential and it is vital to identify and conduct risk analysis on known and potential hazards that the fire brigade and STRT may face.

Compliance requirements

Skagit Project personnel have put systems in place so that the teams themselves do the majority of the documentation and inspections that are required by regulatory agencies and through equipment manufacturer recommendations.

The main requirements fall under these categories: Proper documentation — Annual reports; Incident reports; Medical reports; and Training records. For inspections and testing, categories include: fire station; apparatus; self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); personal protective equipment; and life safety rope. There are also additional requirements for training, medical surveillance and response plans/standard operating procedures.

Inter-agency relationships

Open communication amongst agencies has proven beneficial because it provides knowledge of the others’ capabilities and limitations, it provides opportunity for joint training and exercises and it is an avenue for information. By interacting with numerous agencies, in the chaos that can occur during an actual emergency, recognizing a person from another agency and their organization’s abilities could assist with the overall outcome of a situation.


The fire brigade has four emergency vehicles divided between Newhalem and Diablo. All Skagit emergency vehicles are licensed as aid vehicles with the state, which allows personnel to respond to public emergencies Code 1 — using lights and sirens. In addition to medical equipment, vehicle radios have the Seattle City Light working channels along with local 911 agency frequencies. A binder with important contact phone numbers from multiple agencies, maps, pre-incident plans, standard operating procedures, and medical protocols has proven invaluable.

The fire brigade has two fire engines with 1,500 gallons per minute pumps equipped with a traditional assortment of firefighting, rescue, and medical equipment. There is a deck gun on each apparatus that is capable of pumping 2,000 gpm of water when the fire pumps are used in tandem.

The ambulance is capable of transporting up to two patients on backboards in extreme cases. Most of the incidents to which the team responds are car and motorcycle collisions, so the ambulance carries a full compliment of extrication tools. These tools include chains, reciprocating saw, cribbing, jacks, and hydraulic rescue tools.

The latest addition to the fire brigade fleet is a rapid response vehicle (RRV). It is a Ford F-350 crew cab that has a rollout bed designed to provide a rapid and initial response to any emergency. The apparatus has enough technical rescue equipment to stabilize and access a high angle (steep technical terrain) or confined space victim. During the workweek the chief mans the RRV.

The STRT has two trailers it utilizes for equipment storage and transport. The larger of the two contains the team’s PPE bags, stokes basket used for transporting a victim, system bags, rope, and Amkus ARRS1 rope rescue system. There is enough equipment to build highlines across the local mountainous terrain or rappel down any of the three dam faces. The smaller of the two trailers contains specialized confined space equipment, plenty of free space and swift water rescue equipment. Using trailers as a mobile supply cache has made rescues and training more fluid, with all of the tools in a central location.


The NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program was introduced to Newhalem and Diablo in 2013 to identify and reduce wildfire risk. The Firewise program has provided both towns national recognition and each community has also received acknowledgement in local publications for its stewardship and prevention efforts.

An example of extraordinary accomplishment occurred on Sept. 8, 2014.

A Seattle City Light worker fell 20 ft out of a tree while retrieving equipment for a job that had ended. The tree was located on the edge of a rockslide next to a steep hillside access to the scene. Rescuers had to take a 10-minute boat ride to get to the access road before they could make their way to the trailhead. Coincidentally, STRT was together that day setting up for a planned confined space entry. The team deployed immediately, decreasing what would have otherwise caused an extended response time.

On arrival, EMTs assessed the patient and STRT members set up a rope-retrieval system. Personnel stabilized the patient, put him in a stretcher and used the rope system to haul him up to the trailhead. He was then transported by truck, boat, and ground ambulance to meet a medical helicopter that flew him to a level-5 trauma center.

Without fire brigade EMTs and the STRT to access the patient, it would have been hours before treatment and transport could have happened. The worker’s injuries could have been worsened without the swift action of our trained medical personnel. Additionally, untrained would-be rescuers could have seriously injured themselves or others had they tried to extricate the patient from the hillside. The Seattle City Light worker sustained a broken back; however after four months, he returned to full duty.


The primary mission of the fire brigade is to protect life and property, but having one has proven useful in other ways. The fire brigade has put together realistic fire extinguisher training for employees; provided rescue plans for complex jobs; and served as standby medical teams for potentially dangerous work.

The STRT has become an operational tool for meeting confined space safety regulations for work to take place at the hydroelectric facilities. Some of the work they have performed includes rappelling down penstocks and cleaning them; setting up rope lowering and raising systems to enable worker to access remote areas; and providing rescue plans and standby teams for complex and potentially dangerous job sites that have difficult terrain or swift moving water.

Having a fire brigade and a technical rescue team takes a lot of equipment and resources. There has to be a willing workforce that will commit to extra responsibility, training and developing augmented or new methodologies toward tasks. The very nature of work has real risks associated with it.

On the Skagit Project, such a large investment has had a short payback period. Seattle City Light has empowered its employees on the Skagit and in turn the employees have saved lives and reduced further injury of other employees, residents, contractors and the traveling public.

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