Cold Weather Survival Training for Operators of Remote Hydro Plants

Personnel who work at remote hydroelectric facilities, like those in the Northern Manitoba area of Canada, may be faced with an overnight stay outdoors. To ensure worker safety, Manitoba Hydro administers a Cold Weather Survival program that equips personnel with the skills they need to survive.

By Gregory J. Szocs

Imagine … It’s 30 degrees Celsius below zero and you’re 200 km (124 miles) from home, conducting routine tasks that bring you to remote locations such as this one on a regular basis. However, on this day your helicopter, your only means of transportation, will not start. It will be dark in just a few hours, making a rescue impossible.

A flurry of thoughts clouds your mind. I can’t stay here. I’m not prepared. It’s freezing and I have no food. I have plans tonight. Your heart rate elevates, your stomach begins to feel queasy, and clear thought is a struggle. You’ve never been in this position before. You need a plan. But what?

Canada’s Northern Manitoba area is a vast expanse of undeveloped wilderness that consists of boreal forest, lakes and taiga (sub-arctic forest) and stretches north to featureless tundra and the western reaches of Hudson Bay. The ground is covered in snow for about seven months, with temperatures consistently below freezing from September to April. With all that precipitation, a great deal of water flows through the area and, where you find water, you’ll find Manitoba Hydro staff.

Manitoba Hydro is a provincial crown corporation established in 1951 as the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board. The corporation, which provides electricity and gas service to customers throughout the province, owns 15 hydroelectric projects on the Nelson, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Laurie rivers that provide a total of 5,300 MW of capacity. Nine of these are located in Northern Manitoba.

The Canadian province of Manitoba can be a harsh environment in which to work during the winter months, with snow on the ground for about seven months of the year and temperatures consistently below freezing between September and April.
The Canadian province of Manitoba can be a harsh environment in which to work during the winter months, with snow on the ground for about seven months of the year and temperatures consistently below freezing between September and April.

Over the years, there had been several instances where Manitoba Hydro employees were forced to spend the night outdoors because of equipment malfunction, and there were several other close calls. Fortunately, nobody was injured during any of these incidents. However, the seed was planted and in the late 1990s, Manitoba Hydro determined a program was needed to help employees of all experience levels prepare for an unplanned stay in the wilderness in a winter environment.

To meet this need, the author developed a 34-hour Cold Weather Survival program in 1998 that is entering the 16th year of operation. The program began as a one-day (24 hours) course but was soon expanded to 34 hours to include more classroom time. This allowed for additional survival theory to be explored and for more student/instructor discussion and survival case study to occur.

Background on the program

The Cold Weather Survival program is a proactive initiative focused on preventing harm and the loss of life resulting from unplanned-for exposure to a cold weather environment. The program emphasizes mental preparedness through discussion of the most recent and relevant trends in risk management, behavioral psychology and survival philosophy. Physical preparedness is also encouraged through a supervised overnight stay in a remote forested environment.

The ultimate goal of the program is to build a competent and resilient workforce that is capable of thinking clearly and concisely under circumstances that are inherently unpredictable and potentially life-threatening. As a result of these benefits, many Manitoba Hydro departments have made the program a mandatory course of study for their field personnel.

Personnel taking part in the Cold Weather Survival program are given minimal supplies necessary to survive and then must construct shelters, build a fire and establish a supply of drinking water. They are left alone overnight to ensure an authentic experience.
Personnel taking part in the Cold Weather Survival program are given minimal supplies necessary to survive and then must construct shelters, build a fire and establish a supply of drinking water. They are left alone overnight to ensure an authentic experience.

Typically there are two to four courses offered each season, with the majority of the training occurring in February – one of the coldest months of the year in Manitoba. For reasons of safety and field exercise management, class size is limited to 12 students. Training locations have been established province-wide to meet the needs of the majority of field staff, with the bulk of the courses being offered near Winnipeg, Thompson and Gillam because the major generating capacity is near these communities.

The first morning of class deals with the latest theories surrounding survival psychology, basic behavioral psychology and physiology, as well as general survivor attitude and aptitude. Extensive research has gone into compiling information about how the brain works under the influences of stress and hormone production in extreme situations. This knowledge is critical to understanding how people react and why some survive and others do not. A recent addition to the course is a section on outdoor risk management. This content deals primarily with how people make decisions in the outdoors, why people take risk (as it relates to behavior psychology), how to assess risk, and how people can avoid the pitfalls that lead to bad outdoor decision-making.

The remainder of the classroom content deals with the skills and equipment necessary to survive a cold weather environment. Because the main focus is to teach basic overnight survival skills, much of the instruction is centered on shelter building, firewood collection, maintaining hydration and firecraft. Other important topics include: site selection, task planning and cooperation, leadership, clothing, first aid and cold weather-related illness, weather conditions, tools and equipment, survival kit contents, ice safety, tool safety, and an overview of the Canadian search and rescue system.

The overnight field exercise begins at noon on the second day and is designed to allow students to implement information learned in the classroom. For safety reasons, there are two instructors on site for this part of the course. Students are broken up into groups of two or three and released into the woods at the exercise site to begin constructing shelters, collecting fire wood, building a fire, and establishing and maintaining fresh drinking water.

The students are allowed to bring only the clothes on their back, a knife, lighter and headlamp. The instructor provides a small stainless steel pail for melting snow, handsaw, cup for drinking, thin foil survival blanket, and 6 feet of small-diameter rope. Absolutely no other equipment or food is permitted. Axes and similar cutting tools are not authorized because of the danger inherent in their use.

Instructors monitor the students during their preparations but students are left on their own after 8 p.m. Instructors remain on site at all times and have warm vehicles available should they be required during the night. The exercise is complete at 7 a.m. the following morning, and students are transported to a restaurant for breakfast and debriefing.

Results of the program

Not all the students perform the requirements of the course flawlessly. Spending a miserable night in the bush is in itself a learning experience for many people. Arguably, the students that do not prepare themselves as well as they should for the overnight stay often learn more about survival in the cold than do those who have a comfortable stay. If anything, they learn better planning strategies for avoiding another miserable stay in the bush.

At the other end of the spectrum are those students who look at this training as a welcome challenge. Because of the overall remote nature of Manitoba’s rural areas, many residents are well-seasoned hunters and fishers and are familiar with the dangers associated with winter in the wilderness. These students enjoy the course on another level as they use it to develop some new skills and further hone those they already possess.

The program is of interest to a variety of Manitoba Hydro employees, including those who work with remote communications systems and perform transmission line maintenance, as well as surveyors and field technologists, engineers, environmental specialists, and those who travel infrequently in remote areas. Because Manitoba Hydro does operate several remote fly-in facilities, some plant personnel participate in a shortened “seminar” version of the course. It has also been made available to outside corporations involved with winter road construction, exploration, education and the environment, as well as other utilities, such as Churchill Falls in Labrador.

More than 500 students have been through the program, and there is typically a waiting list for enrollment.

The Cold Weather Survival program was developed at almost no expense to the corporation. Because of his strong background in survival and outdoor education, the instructor developed the course in his spare time while working in remote areas as a field technician. The content was offered under a contract arrangement between the instructor and Manitoba Hydro but was adopted by the corporation as an internal training program in 2008. Manitoba Hydro now administers the program, with the instructor acting as program manager. To cover costs – including the instructor’s time and costs such as classroom rental, vehicles, meals and accommodations – $500 is charged back to each student’s department.

Greg Szocs, a field safety officer with Manitoba Hydro, designed the utility’s Cold Weather Survival program and is the instructor. He has spent more than 30 years designing and presenting outdoor education programs.

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