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DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL Oilfield VHF Radio Use and Oilfield Driving in Canada Oilfield Driving may be a little more physically challenging than most highway work, but that's what makes it interesting. City traffic, mountains, prairie winds, and off road trucking all have their own specific hazards, but as truck drivers we quickly adapt to the challenges that we face. . Working in the oilfields you will no doubt see firsthand, and hear about some terrible accidents. There are enough pictures floating around to make one think twice about becoming an oilfield trucker. My intention is not to show you how to become a statistic. I would rather you be aware of how not to become one. You already have all the tools to do any job safely, but how you use them is always up to you. Mud Along with freezing rain and glare ice, mud is one of the worst driving conditions you can face. Mud slick roads are comparable to hydroplaning on water or slush. The difference is that you lose control over your steering at much lower speeds when driving in mud. The mud becomes a slippery film under the pressure applied by your tires. This is a similar phenomenon to a “slide plane” effect that creates a landslide. Your steering tires will tend to follow the ruts in the road, and it will be difficult to get out of them once you are in them. You are usually required to chain up and drive much slower when conditions are muddy. It is common for oilfield roads to be shut down during these conditions, as the risk of damage to the roads, and equipment is increased. One of the toughest things to do is to haul b-trains through mud. It doesn't matter if you are empty, loaded, or chained up. The drag from that many tires through thick mud can be extremely difficult to overcome. Snow Packed snow is my favorite off road condition to drive on, because I hate mud. I also don't care for gravel because I like my windshield intact. Windshields don't last very long with rocks being kicked up from passing vehicles on gravel roads. The great thing about snow is that you know exactly what you are driving on. You can adjust your speed accordingly. It is far nicer than driving on a winter road that may have black ice or glaze. Slow down and stay well back of snow dust being kicked up from vehicles in front of you. Slow down when passing vehicles going the other way. (Don't dust them out with your snow cloud). I already mentioned you are paid by the hour, so what's the rush? The roads are extremely narrow, so a snow dust cloud can easily put others in the ditch. Be careful of freshly graded roads after a snowstorm. Finding the edge of the road could be a costly mistake. If a plow blade is level with the road when plowed, it can appear like the road is wider than it actually is. DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL Ice Roads Muskeg Ice roads in the oilfields are built by water trucks flooding the road like a hockey rink. They build thick layers of ice to be able to support the heavy vehicles on top of muskeg areas. You will rarely be allowed to run chains on manmade ice roads, so slower controlled driving is important. The only positive thing about Muskeg ice roads is you will rarely have any hills to worry about. A muskeg is a low lying bog or swampy area. Steep Grades and Chaining Up This is the big one. Steep grades are where most people seem to get into trouble. The biggest reason is the driver’s lack of judgment regarding when to apply truck tire chains. If you are unsure, you probably need them. Especially if you are new and don't know the roads you are traveling on. Truck chains are very cheap insurance that will make the roads safer for others, and they cover you if anything should happen. Putting on tire chains at the right time is not the easiest call to make, and we all learn lessons the hard way. Chaining up when you are spun out on a hill has some serious safety risks. There is nothing worse than holding the chains in your hands as you watch your truck and trailer sliding away on you. This may sound funny, but many oilfield truckers will be able to relate to this. Don't ever get complacent just because you are familiar with a road and the hills. Most experienced drivers that think they can do it, or have done it before, are the ones that get caught. This is exactly when some unknown hazard will get you. It could be anything from a change in road conditions, to an accident scene where people are out of their vehicles, or another driver failing to use chains that is spun out. Don't count on other's to warn you of these hazards on the radio either, as this is not always possible. (Especially if it just happened). You don't chain up for what you know, chain up for what you don't know. When a driver knows any road they can easily become complacent. A "drivers edge” is a slight level of caution when they drive on snow, ice, challenging, or unknown terrain. This edge is what keeps them in check. This edge can disappear when you become complacent and can be easily replaced with aggression, according to how well they know a section of road or terrain. Sadly, I believe that we can all be guilty of this. Here is an example of what I mean. If you have lived on a road for 30 years and you come home in a thick fog, do you ever overdrive your vision? The truth is, the better we know a road, the more dangerous we can become. This is the opposite of what one might expect. This is human nature. You won't ever see a race car driver doing test runs on a track so they can be more cautious and safe. They are "learning" the track so they can attack it more aggressively. You can sometimes count on others using the road to point out hazards like this, but what if it's not busy and there is nobody around? • I am going to say this again. Don't chain up for what you know, chain up for what you don't know. • Don't ever forget this. How steep of a grade will you see? A typical steep grade on a highway would be considered 5% to 8%, and occasionally a little more. I have seen grades on secondary highways in the mountains 14% or more. In the oilfields of northern Alberta and BC you can expect to see grades over 20%. I have been up and down some absolutely crazy bush roads. The steepest grade that I have seen was 27%. If you think the drivers from ice road truckers had their challenges, wait until you do some off road oilfield driving. Working in northern Alberta along the mountains, and in northern BC, is some of the most challenging terrain you will find in North America. You will need to be good at shifting. Hills of 12% grade or more may require you to take 2 or 3 gears at once. If you have been driving for a while and can't quite master shifting, this work will not be for you. I would DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL suggest working in a more flat area as automatic trucks are becoming more common. 18 speed transmissions are still very popular in the Oilfields. Chaining up multiple times a day, or even multiple times on the same road can happen.(On off, on off, etc...). Chaining up will be a standard part of your routine just like tarping a load, or checking your equipment. You may not enjoy it with frozen hands when it's -40, but you won't have a choice if you are climbing bush road in the mountains with a 15% or 20% grade. After doing this a lot, it will be second nature to you. When you are good at chaining up, it could be done in just under 5 minutes on a good day. (This is chaining up 1 axle on both sides with a set of triples). Of course we all have good days and bad days. A bad day could be 20 minutes or more, as chains could be tangled, frozen, or damaged and need quick repairs. Tow Tractors Fortunately, most oilfield companies will supply mandatory tow tractors when grades are steep. They do this for a few reasons. (Read on further down where we relate a story about the consequences of a blocked road.) This is becoming more common now as safety continues to be an issue. For many drivers, it was a bit of a challenge to “make” a bad hill on your own. Looking back at it now I say “Why”? It's not your road or equipment, so I guess it's easy for some drivers not to worry about it. Digging, clawing, and bucking up a hill can easily take out a driveshaft and chew up the road. Sliding down an icy hill backwards and ending up in the ditch is no fun either. If you slide down an icy hill backwards, it will be a combination of skill and luck that will keep you out of the ditch. Another lesson is, don't start up a bad hill until you are sure it is clear from the other drivers. This next story really shows the consequences of blocking a road because of a poor judgement call. I can relate a bad story where myself and another driver made the decision to chain up going into a location. When we were within 1 km of the location we came across an accident. There were three trucks all from the same company going to the same place we were, but they decided they didn't need to put on any chains. Two of them were in the ditch and they had the narrow road completely blocked. Unfortunately, to make things Here are a few other general tips to keep in mind when driving. These oilfield roads are sometimes patrolled by the companies that own them. Some oil companies will even run their own radar patrols. Getting caught doing anything careless could mean a fine, suspension from the road, or even being banned from working for a particular company. The roads are often narrow and rough so drive accordingly. Observe the posted limits and slow down when passing other vehicles so you don't spray their windshield with rocks. Unfortunately, not everyone will be considerate out there, but the drivers that aren't, usually don't last very long. Someone will typically report them and they could be banned from using the roads. You never know who is watching you. or who is in the vehicle that you are passing. Watch out for narrow bridges, and drive slow. They are not designed to have a 50 ton load slammed into them at high speeds. They are designed to have heavy loads roll over them at a reasonable speeds. If you hit these bridges hard enough you can dislodge the support, or disturb the ground around it. Washboard gravel roads can also be dangerous as they can almost vibrate you off the road. Slow down for washboard areas, which typically occur in uphill sections. Watch out for wildlife like deer, bears, moose, buffalo, elk, mountain sheep, caribou and even large members of the cat family. So these are some of the conditions you can encounter in the oilfields. Hopefully, you are not deterred from pursuing a career in oilfield driving. It really is a fun, challenging, and financially rewarding career. What makes it all come together is that you are not alone out there very often. VHF radios are how everyone communicates safely on these back roads. What is an Oilfield Lease? An “Oilfield Lease” is basically the area of land occupied by the oil company for the purpose of drilling, servicing and producing oil or gas. This is where you will find the drilling rig, the fracturing service company, and everyone else involved in the process when you are trucking in the oilfields. DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL Think of it as being similar to a“right of way” for power transmission lines. They don't have to physically own the land to use it. Hence the word lease. The oil companies divide their work into two main segments. There are many opportunities that exist in both of these segments. Many off road trucking companies have equipment that will service both of these divisions. These segments are Drilling and Completions. Drilling After all the seismic testing and geological assessments have determined you are going to put a hole in the ground, you have to set up the drilling rig. This is considered the first major part of the process to bring a well into production. There are a vast amount of jobs involved in the drilling side of this business. There is no shortage of variety for you to choose from. From rigs moves requiring deck and crane work, to rig servicing requirements like fluids, drilling products, and other materials, this segment has a lot to offer. For anyone who has not seen a rig set up, check out this video. Having worked in the oilfields, I can tell you it's more difficult than people think to make a video. This is well done. Notice the different pieces of equipment being used. So here is a short list of some of the off road trucking jobs associated with drilling. Don't forget the work that goes into clearing lands and setting up camps to house workers in remote areas. • Logging • Bed truck and winch truck drivers • Rig shack and camp shack hauling • Rig movers • Pipe haulers • Cranes and picker trucks • Heavy equipment haulers, road builders, road graders, and equipment operators • Cementing crews from service companies • Fluid haulers – water, drilling fluids, oil, fuel, propane, etc. • End dump truck driving jobs • Storage tank haulers • Rig mat hauling Bulker work makes up a very large portion of the off road trucking jobs in the oilfields. Tank truck drivers, pneumatic bulk work (cement and sand offloading) and dump truck driving jobs are all in high demand. If you get involved in the fracturing and well servicing side of the business you can expect to haul: • Cryogenics like Co2 and nitrogen • Bulk transport work (fracturing sand and cement) • Water • Frac oils • Machinery and fracturing equipment • Wireline trucks • Hot oilers • Picker trucks and cranes • Storage tanks and other vessels needed on locations • Pressure trucks • Vacuum trucks • Acid trucks • Production oil and by-products DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL • There is also “Hot Shot” trucking for people that want to be involved in off road trucking, but don't possess a truck driving license. You could be delivering anything, at anytime, to anywhere. If someone needs a part to fix a drilling rig that is shut down, they need it immediately. It is costing thousands of dollars an hour to stop production. Hot shot companies can have every class of vehicle depending on the size of what you are hauling. Production work After the well is producing, there can be a substantial amount of production work. We mentioned before about the various products that can be produced from a well. (Oil, water, crude oil, condensates, etc...) Gas wells are usually set up directly to a pipeline where oil wells can be set to flow into a series of tanks. Production runs are steady paying jobs. If you are looking for consistency, this is one of your safest choices. We mentioned before about steady money over sporadic ups and downs with a higher wage. (This is a great example). You could be working "Infield" moving products from lease to lease, or hauling heavy or light crude oil along with other products to midstream facilities or rail yards. Midstream facilities are where these products will be introduced into the pipeline system. Rail yards are where these crude unrefined products are shipped just about everywhere in North America to be refined. Camp Jobs Camp jobs are popular for truck drivers that do not want to do a lot of driving. They are also good for keeping expenses down. Living in a camp means your meals, rooms, and laundry are all paid for. Camp jobs often require you to work for or be contracted to the oil company or drilling rig directly. You could be hauling water, operating a vacuum truck, or operating other equipment like road graders, or excavators. Camp jobs usually have a rotation, so you still may have to find a place to live when you are not in the camp. Fly in, fly out situations are good if you can find them, but they are also related to the economy. "When things are slow, the perks will go". Oilfield Truckers Log Book Many companies also operate under a special permit in Alberta if they are directly related to servicing of the well with products or services. To sum it up as simply as possible, it is a 24 day cycle with drivers having to show 3 periods of 24 hours off in the 24 days. So you can work 21 days straight on this cycle before having to take 72 hours off. Companies have to jump through a few hoops to qualify for this as you can read here at this link. "Oilfield Exemption Permit" If you visit this link, you will also find other links for those interested in learning more about the permit. Ice Road Trucking Oilfield trucking is not limited to any particular area, and can serve some extremely remote locations across the western sedimentary basin. This is all considered western off road trucking. Ice road trucking involves more specifically focused freight routes to remote areas over seasonal roads. This means crossing frozen rivers and lakes to provide supplies to mines and communities in the northern Canadian Territories and some parts of Alaska. Ice road truckers will encounter a variety of road conditions from pavement, gravel, bush roads, muskeg ice roads, to full ice roads crossing lakes and rivers. Oilfield trucking will have this same terrain, except for the lake and river ice roads. There are a few, but the are not very common. Although they both have their dangers and challenges, most drivers consider oilfield trucking terrain the most difficult. The grades are sometimes extreme, and you are often going to different locations every time. Muskeg Ice Roads When I traveled into northern British Columbia and up to Ft. Nelson there were some large oilfields in this area that are only accessible in the winter. They are Muskeg (low lying bogs or swamps) areas, and have a different type of ice road. They actually build the ice roads up like a skating rink in layers after it starts freezing in the winter. DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL A water truck will flood this road to progressively build the thickness of ice each time. This thick layer of ice over the muskeg will be able to support heavy equipment and supplies brought by trucks. These are usually shorter roads built off the main gravel roads to service the oilfield lease. So we covered some off road trucking jobs, and where they fit within the oil and gas industry. Now we are going to get into some specifics of what you can expect driving off road, including some information on chaining up truck tires. Why a VHF Radio? VHF (Very High Frequency) radios are used over a CB radio because they have better range, less interference, clear sound quality and a larger channel capacity than a standard CB radio. A VHF radio should be tested as part of your pre-trip inspection (just like a blower or wet kit). You are not going to drive 300 kms of highway, and another 3 hours of bush roads to find out they don't work when you get there. Don't leave without a radio check. Some roads will have security check points, and will not let you proceed without a good working radio when you sign in. In this case, they usually let you proceed with another vehicle to escort you, but don't count on it. Some companies are getting pretty sticky with the rules. VHF Road Channels Most oilfield roads will have a designated channel that is posted at the entrance, or noted on your driving directions. I have on occasion driven on roads with no designated channel, or that have optional use of radios. (This never made sense in an industry that pushes so hard for safety.) Sometimes you will have to make an extra effort to find out a channel either by stopping someone, or using the scan feature on your radio to try and pick up other users. (Be resourceful when it comes to your safety.) There are also times you will enter a road at another point other than a main entrance that won't have a sign to identify the channel. Some of the main bush roads could be over 100 kms long, with multiple roads you can enter from or leave. They may not have signs posted at all these entrances. For this reason, oilfield driving also requires good route planning just like highway or city work. I got into the habit of getting as much information from dispatch, or other drivers whenever I could. Chances are that someone has been down that road before, and could also warn you of any hazards that may be associated with that road. They can also point out things like switchbacks, steep hills and good locations to chain up. Just keep in mind that things can change quickly working off road, even a designated road channel could be changed. This could be the result of increased traffic and volume for the channel, another nearby road using the same channel, changes in road use agreements, or ownership of the road. The rules can also be different depending on the Province, road or region. Calling out Road Markers Almost all oilfield roads have km markers. Calling out these markers on your VHF radio is what identifies your location on the road to the other vehicles that use them. Certain roads will have markers every km, while others may mark every 2, 5, or 10 kms. Whether you have to call out markers usually depends on the condition, width of the road, or amount of traffic. A wider gravel secondary road like the Alberta Forestry Truck Road may have markers for the purpose of identification, instead of for calling out your location. You can still be considerate to let people know where you are even if it is not required. This will allow both parties to slow down and not shower each other with rocks when they meet on a bend. Becoming a truck driver in the oilfields means being a considerate driver. There are already enough bad apples out there as you will quickly find out. Being a considerate and professional driver can also help your career if you decide to make a move up the ladder or to another company. On roads like this you will not be required to call in every km. Instead you will only call in important markers designated with a different colour like red or orange, or with a “must call” sign (Also sometimes marked "MC"). Busy roads often have bans to truck traffic during peak times for rig, or other workers. These bans DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL are usually posted at the main entrance to an oilfield. To save yourself grief, try to ask this question to your dispatcher before you leave on your trip. Unwritten rules like calling in for others can help keep radio use down. If you are leading a pack of vehicles, you may call yourself in as a “bunch”or a “few”. If you pass someone at a marker, you can call in for both of you by saying “both ways at marker___”. You will learn the unwritten rules as you go. Make sure if you travel up north that you don't confuse kms with miles. The Alaskan Highway still refers to mile markers in northern BC. The Jedney road leaves the Alaskan highway at Mile marker 126, but as soon as you start off road, you will be using kms. How using VHF makes the roads safer. Most roads will have small pull outs for dangerous areas in each direction before a hazard of this type. On narrow roads like this try to be considerate, but also use your head. If there is only one of you as opposed to a group travelling the other way, stop for them. It's much easier to find a spot for one vehicle to pull out than a group. You may also find some specific posted rules like “Log trucks have the right of way.”This means that you HAVE to stop for log trucks that are loaded. These are not typical log trucks, as they are wide, long, and heavier than what most people are used to seeing. When you do get into a dicey situation with a vehicle, remember it will be easier to tow out the car than your load. You will find most small vehicle traffic will give the right of way to bigger trucks on the more dangerous roads. Be aware that there are lots of other rules both written, and unwritten, you will find out as you go. Always be attentive. Identifying your Direction When travelling in the direction where the km marker numbers are going up, you are considered “Empty”. When the numbers are going down, you are said to be “Loaded”. This usually confuses people headed to a location with a load on their trailer when they are calling out empty. (You will get used to it.) It can also be challenging when changing from one road to another. You could be travelling empty as the markers are going up, but as soon as you turn off to another road the markers could be going down instead of up. So now you will still be going into location, but your “call in”changed from Empty to Loaded with the road switch. This can change on some roads especially in BC. They may use “Up” and “Down”instead of “Loaded” and “Empty” for directional identification. Other Situations There will always be other situations arise that may not have a standard way of communication. Just do your best to let others know what you are, where you are, and what you are doing. For example: Short roads coming off a main road into a lease location may not always have a channel or km marker. In this case drivers often use terms like: leaving location, headed into, coming out of, etc. They usually identify the marker on the road where they enter or leave, the oil company, or the LSD of the lease as a road identifier. (We will cover what an LSD is is the next section on Truckers Equipment, GPS and driving directions.) Basic examples of what you might hear: “Tanker leaving the Jedney at 7 headed into location, is there anyone coming out?” “Loaded tanker, 6 Jedney” “Empty body job approaching km 12 bridge on the Jedney” So they are identifying what direction they are travelling in, what they are, the km marker, and the road they are on. You will find that road users can say this many different ways, so long as they use the main identifiers. There is usually someone watching or listening! DRIVING IN THE PATCH TAKES MORE THAN JUST SKILL Be respectful, courteous, and remember that you are driving a billboard. You never know who is listening to your conversation over the radio. If you do something wrong, chances are your dispatcher will know right away. Speed limits are usually posted as well. Some roads will have multiple speed limits for vehicles 1 ton and under, and another limit for heavy truck traffic. Getting caught speeding could get you, and even your company banned from a road. One more note about being considerate. Turn off your stereo. You may not think it is loud, but your microphone is more sensitive than you think. It is very annoying to other drivers when they can't distinguish between your voice and the stereo.
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