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Planning for Emergencies at Remote Project Sites

April 26, 2021
Safety professionals need to review their emergency plans and create contingencies for job sites in remote, rural areas.

Heavy industry and inherently hazardous work often happens in locations far from conventional emergency response, including construction, mining, oil and gas drilling, and even some scientific and technical experimental ventures.

Even so, project managers, site superintendents, planners, and health and safety professionals are still charged with overseeing and protecting workers in remote locations. This could include residential construction crews working on a cabin, a mining company working on a new site, an oil well drilling crew working in a remote area, loggers developing a new cut, a road construction crew establishing access to a new mine, construction or any other industry that is located far away from rapid response to emergencies.

How well an organization plans for possible emergencies in remote locations can be the dividing line between tragedy and success. It could mean the difference between whether an employee’s life is lost or saved, or if an operation and capital infrastructure is lost due to an incident.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, so site managers need to know the types of hazards they should plan for, how to conduct risk assessments, how rural emergency services operate, and how to work with those agencies to best plan for emergencies.


Remote industry sites generally present all the same hazards as those located in an urban area—with potentially some additional hazards unique to rural areas.

Common industrial injuries include slips, trips and falls; objects in eyes; burns; dropped objects; and struck by incidents. Vehicle crashes, especially run-off-road and rollover crashes, can also occur. These injuries can become more serious if treatment is distant.

Fires and explosions are possible, and a fire occurring at a remote industrial site could spread into the surrounding land, potentially turning a small, localized fire into a large wildfire.

Extractive industries such as oil and gas drilling, mining and tunneling can often present hazards that require specialized skills to mitigate complex and potentially extremely dangerous incidents. Certain industries also create some hazards of a more technical nature, such as confined spaces or elevated platforms, where local resources may be insufficient to handle the incident.

In addition to job site-specific hazards, medical emergencies remain an ever-present risk. As some employees in these industries have less healthy lifestyles, this risk likely compounds those existing hazards.

Rural Emergency Response Capabilities

The services provided by rural fire and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies in the United States are different from those in an urban area. An important distinction is that rural agencies are often staffed by individuals who volunteer their time to serve as opposed to many urban agencies that employ full-time staff.

Volunteer fire and EMS agencies typically have much smaller budgets and, correspondingly, often have less equipment and capability than their urban counterparts. While all agencies focus their training and capabilities to match their typical call load, rural call loads are usually much smaller (fewer than a few hundred a year) and are often a mix of medical calls, vehicle crashes and the occasional fire.

Firefighting in rural areas is fundamentally different than in urban areas. For example, rural fires typically grow past flashover prior to the fire department’s arrival, so rural interventions are often defensive in the strategy of attack. Rural areas also often lack domestic water infrastructure, meaning fire hydrants are not present in many areas. This requires water supply for fire attack to be delivered via water tenders or tankers.

Alternatively, fires where the structure is past saving are typically left to burn out, so firefighters shift their attention to containment. Rural fire departments often lack specialized training, equipment and capabilities to manage technical rescue incidents, such as confined space rescues, trench collapses or rope access.

Likewise, EMS agencies are also fundamentally different in rural areas from their urban counterparts. Rural EMS agencies can have a lower capability and capacity, often staffing their units at the Basic Life Support (BLS) level, meaning individuals can handle minor injuries and illnesses but do not have the ability to deliver many medications or provide advanced intervention as would an Advanced Life Support (ALS) level response, as is typical in an urban area. Response times can be longer than in urban areas—20 minutes or more—and transport times are often far longer, as definitive care or trauma centers can be hours away.

Rural response to critical patients often involves the use of aeromedical evacuation via helicopter air ambulance services to reduce transportation time. While the use of a helicopter for patient transport is a benefit to patient care, there are some significant limitations. Medical helicopters are typically visual flight only. While they can often fly at night, they are limited by bad weather conditions either at the incident scene or at any point along their journey. Helicopters often have limits on the height and weights of the patient(s) they transport, and their range also varies based on air temperature and altitude. Helicopters also require flat, unobstructed landing areas to land and take off, the size of which can vary based on the responding aircraft.

Planning for Incidents at a Remote Worker Site

Conducting a detailed analysis of potential incidents (see “Potential incidents” sidebar below) is a critical first step in developing an effective emergency response plan for a project site. Ultimately, this analysis will generate a risk register.

To begin, first list all the potential incidents that may occur—no matter how far-fetched—and assign a reasonable estimate of the potential of that incident occurring. Then, independent of that event’s likelihood, determine the consequence. For any given event, the probability and consequence can be multiplied to create a quantitative risk estimate. Risks with the highest probabilities should be planned for and addressed first, followed by those with the highest consequence and moderate risk pairing.

The next step is to think about what care or response would be needed—or what would you expect if you called 911—and what capabilities your site and personnel possess to mitigate the incident. Unless on-site employees have additional training, expecting them to do more than use a small fire extinguisher or a provide basic first aid is both risky and poor planning.

Once you have an idea of how incidents would reasonably be managed, contact the local fire department and EMS agencies to let them know about your project and to inquire about their capabilities. Be clear with what the potential incidents on your project site include and detail the nature of their operation.

Consider periodically inviting their members (or officers) as work progresses, so they become familiar with the site. This helps the fire department plan their response and possibly train for potential incidents on your site. Most fire departments would be enthusiastic to both find out about new projects and visit sites to develop pre-incident plans.

It’s also a good idea to contact the air ambulance services that are routinely used by the local fire and EMS agencies to learn what they need to respond to your specific site. If possible, construct and/or mark a landing zone that meets or exceeds the requirements for the largest helicopters that could serve your site. Communicate the location of this landing zone with the aeromedical service and with the local fire department and EMS agencies. Keep those GPS coordinates handy and distribute them widely so anyone calling 911 can reference them.

Site Self-Sufficiency

Once a site is farther away than a few hours from an effective 911 response, relying solely on the local fire department and EMS agency can result in tragedy for staff and/or loss of the project site from a fire. It’s important for on-site personnel to be more responsible for—and capable of—handling emergencies themselves, or at least plan for them to initiate and start mitigating the emergency. Self-sufficiency in managing emergencies on-site is achieved through good planning, effective training and maintaining the necessary equipment to mitigate potential incidents.

The training required for a self-sufficient operation should match the hazards expected. Since medical care in rural areas is distant, and may be hours or more from arriving, it is ideal to have a staff member trained as an EMT and several others qualified in Tactical Emergency Combat Care (TECC), the civilian equivalent to the military’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care, or another equivalent training for managing trauma in an austere environment. Training on wilderness emergency medical care, such as that offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and others, is also a good preparatory option but would need to exceed the standard of first aid and CPR that is typically required at urban project locations.

From a fire suppression perspective, training all crew members to use fire extinguishers is a baseline. Additional training on simple fire attack using water trucks and portable pumps can help ensure a site can contain small fires and prevent spread.

Training should include how to mitigate special hazards on-site, such as confined spaces or hazardous materials. Survival training and learning how to mitigate environmental risks is also a good idea in case of foul weather or supplies to the site are otherwise cut off. Necessary equipment and personnel training should match the hazards expected and should be planned in detail to try and maximize overlap with other construction tasks and equipment.

Resources & Guidance

Working at a remote location presents unique hazards and complications. Unfortunately, few good resources exist for how to plan for remote work, and they often understate the associated risks or need for self-reliance.

The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) provides good guidance on remote site work in the health and safety portion of their website that is focused on exploration and research drilling projects for the mining industry. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) also published a text on Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments in 2005. For resources on training, the Rural Firefighting Handbook provides a good introduction on rural fire department operations and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) offers training materials and resources on wildland fire.

Consider consulting other project staff who have worked on similar remote projects. Ask how they managed incidents and for any lessons learned. Above all, be proactive and reach out to the local fire and EMS agencies before there’s an emergency. 

Sidebar 1: Potential incidents to plan for:

  • Injuries (minor and major)
  • Vehicle crashes
  • Fires (vehicle, structure, wildland)
  • Medical emergencies
  • Hazardous materials spills
  • Extended loss of power or utility interruption
  • Extended poor weather (leaving site isolated and personnel trapped)

Sidebar 2: Considerations to discuss with local fire/EMS:

  1. Capabilities (fire suppression, hazmat, rescue, medical care)
  2. Equipment sizes (Can their trucks get into your site?)
  3. Routes of access and egress
  4. Response times and transport times
  5. Distance to mutual aid or other backup resources

Chris Enright is a licensed professional engineer, a lieutenant with a rural volunteer fire department outside of Denver and the owner and proprietor of Aperture Natural Resources LLCHe is also certified as a firefighter (both structural and wildland), hazardous materials response, traffic incident management, technical rope rescue, emergency medical care and wilderness emergency response. Enright has worked in public safety for nine years with a mine rescue team at the Colorado School of Mines, an ambulance service serving a suburban community and a fire department covering a large rural and mountainous area. He is also the author of the Mine Rescue Manual: A Comprehensive Guide for Mine Rescue Team Members.

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