Linemen often have to crawl down inside underground vaults and stay safe in confined spaces. In addition, they climb poles and structures and must find a way to get their coworkers down in the event of an injury.

Line crews can learn from a program used at Southern Company (Atlanta, Georgia) electric generating facilities for the last 20 years. The medical first responder program first started in the company's Alabama Power subsidiary in 1990 and structural fire brigades in its Georgia Power subsidiary in the 1980s. Other Southern Company operating companies began similar programs along the same time.

About four years later, the utilities formed confined-space rescue teams in response to a confined-space law from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The teams are now known as emergency response teams (ERTs). Mostly comprised of volunteers, team members are trained in medical first response, firefighting and confined-space rescue.

ERTs can be an important link in the chain of emergency response. The ERT team members learn how to bridge the gap from when an accident occurs at a plant to when outside services arrive on the scene. Many of the plants face unique challenges, which can lead to complications during an emergency. For example, some plants are located in remote areas, and as a result, off-site emergency response agencies may not be immediately available. Others feature unique hazards that can lead to fast-developing emergencies.

Team Effort

Over time, Southern Company sent its ERT members to on-site and off-site training sessions.

In the beginning, some company ERTs competed against other teams in an off-site rescue competition. Because the competition aspect didn't encourage the sharing of ideas, the utility opted instead to form an internal event that would be a learning experience for everyone.

In 1999, the company started an event called the Rescue Rodeo to allow ERT members to showcase their skills and share their knowledge. At Southern Company's annual Rescue Rodeo, the teams are encouraged to talk to one another and swap ideas. The event is not considered a competition and no prizes are awarded. Instead, the utility reaps rewards by having well-trained employee responders.

In the past, Southern Company sponsored two different two-and-a-half-day sessions in a week-long event, but this year, the company held two separate two-and-a-half-day events in June. The Rescue Rodeo East was held at Plant McManus in Brunswick Georgia, while Rescue Rodeo West was held at Plant Watson in Gulfport, Mississippi. Twenty-one teams, comprised of about 200 trainees, observers, managers and evaluators attended the events.

The size of the ERTs varies from one plant to another, with some plants having only five to 10 people per team and others as many as 30 members. Some plants select who will attend the Rescue Rodeo through a random drawing, while other sites select an equal number of veteran and less experienced ERT members.

Training Teams

Many ERT members are volunteers, but some employees are required to participate because of their job positions and responsibilities. Job classifications of ERT team members vary, but most teams are made up of union workers, electricians, mechanics, managers, supervisors, team leaders, security guards and safety specialists.

Southern Company has an executive ERT committee, which includes representatives from Mississippi Power, Gulf Power, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Southern Nuclear. This committee tests the techniques and formulates the training requirements. Team members train about 40 hours per year. Each utility has its own instructors who will travel to plants to present the training if an instructor is not available on site. In addition, Southern Company contracts with an outside vendor, Wright Rescue Solutions (Panama City, Florida), for occasional training sessions.

Showcasing Skills

After ERT members have been adequately trained, they are ready to participate in the Rescue Rodeo. Southern Company organizes the event inside an actual plant to simulate real-world emergencies.

For the 2009 competition, the ERT members participated in various scenarios, including a scaffold collapse inside an ash pit, a simulated explosion with five injuries and a boiler rescue. The ERT members learned how to get in and out of small drums and water boxes. They also learned how to go through a ladder cage to rescue a worker who had fallen from a fixed ladder.

Confined-space rescue is the driving force behind the Rescue Rodeo, and Southern Company uses the annual event to teach the workers how to enter these spaces safely. For example, workers can't always walk into some areas of a plant. Instead, they have to be lowered and raised with ropes. Over the years, the company has developed techniques and systems to lessen the amount of force required to lift a person out of a confined space.

In addition, the ERTs learn how to remove an injured person from a confined space by using a backboard and basket to lift them out.

Realistic Approach

To help the plants keep their workers safe, this year's Rescue Rodeo included a scaffold collapse simulation that used live “victims” and simulated real injuries. When the ERT members reached the victims, in addition to removing the person from the confined space, the responders also treated their mock injuries.

Over the two-and-one-half day period, the ERT members have the opportunity to visit a teaching station to evaluate a new technology or a piece of equipment. They also work through about six different scenarios, with each lasting about three hours. In this block of time, they typically spend about an hour preplanning, another hour performing the rescue and the final hour in a debriefing session.

Southern Company is proud of its ERT tradition and plans to continue to arm its employees with the knowledge to make the plants a safer place to work.

Dwight Coggin (Dvcoggin@southernco.com), a former groundman on the line crew, has been with Southern Company for the past 36 years. He currently serves as the regulatory compliance analyst and the emergency response team coordinator.

Southern Company Recognizes Top Rescue Teams

While the Southern Company doesn't view the Rescue Rodeo as a competition, the utility does honor the top teams with the annual Rick Downs Ultimate Protector Award. The award, which was established in 2007, is granted to a team or team member who shows outstanding performance during a real-life event. This year, Plant Watson and Plant Daniel in Mississippi and Plant Kraft in Georgia were honored for actual rescues they performed during the previous year.

The award was started in honor of Rick Downs, a Georgia Power engineer who was instrumental in the ERT program. The award recognizes entire ERT teams or team members who serve as advocates and role models for the program.