“Better safe than sorry” is more than a cliché; it’s a fact of life for contractors working on drilling or mining sites — where there is little room for taking chances, especially when bad weather threatens.
After the EF5 tornado that demolished much of Moore, Okla., in May, storm shelters and other safety measures were the talk of the industry. “We saw a spike in interest,” says Steven Carr, production line manager for multipurpose safe rooms at Light Tower Rentals (LTR) in Odessa, Texas. “We’re now seeing the results of those people making those decisions.”
Among its offerings, LTR leases patented Red Dog mobile safe rooms — rated for EF5 events — that require no anchoring and can accommodate large crews. It’s no wonder then that energy companies, drilling and fracking crews and petrochemical companies are considering these shelters an important part of their work sites.
Cost and size
“Companies order them because they understand they have a crew in an area prone to thunderstorms and tornadoes. It is their responsibility to their employees,” Carr says. “It’s the cost of doing business,” he adds, noting that it’s not a capital expense for these crews; rather, it’s one expense they can either write off or pass along to clients.
Leasing costs vary based on lease period (the longer the lease, the lower the cost, for example), number of units and number of options/amenities desired.
Because the shelters — sizes can accommodate up to 30 persons, based on FEMA regulations — are portable, companies can lease them for the run of a project, or even just for the duration of certain crews being on site.
Multiple crews may come to a site at different times; a drilling crew, for example, might bring a shelter and then move it to another location when they leave; then a fracking crew might bring in their own shelter. “They want that shelter with them wherever they go,” Carr notes.
The Red Dog shelters are manufactured in Lubbock, Texas, and Light Tower facilitates the leasing, delivery, moving and removal of the massive shelters — which are constructed of 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of steel and can withstand 350 mph winds (as well as hail, wild fires and other natural disasters).
The shelters can also be equipped with an alert system that picks up information from the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), setting off a siren when a storm is imminent.
How exactly do these big red boxes work? Carr has a clever, but accurate, analogy. “It is a tornado-powered suction cup,” he says. “There are two holes at the top of the unit that go through two pipes to an air chamber underneath the unit. When the unit is put down on the ground it has an airtight fit.
“When a tornado or extremely high winds pass over, it sucks all the air out of the vacuum chamber and acts like a suction cup.”
Venting equalizes the pressure on the inside of the shelter. “If it’s used properly and they close the door properly, those people inside are in the safest designed shelter they can be in,” he adds.
And LTR should know; it has an office just two miles south of Moore. “They had a tornado shelter on their lot waiting to go, and our staff went into it,” Carr says. Fortunately, LTR offices and crew were spared damage and injury.
Not just storms
Storm season may not last all year in many regions. But Carr says portable storm shelters can serve many other purposes — thus the name they use, multipurpose safe rooms.
Equipped with air conditioning, benches, a desk/chair and first-aid/safety equipment, the shelters can also be used as portable offices or cooling or first-aid stations.
“We design these to accommodate 1 1/2 times the normal crew at a drill site,” Carr says. FEMA regulations require 5 square feet per person.
While some companies may rely on reconstructed shipping containers or trailer homes as on-site offices/rooms, Carr says such facilities would not be effective in case of severe weather.
Carr says LTR has about 100 units out at most times — usually in the corridor around Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Texas and other tornado-prone regions.
Providing security for employees is a huge boon for companies, especially in terms of potential liability. “You are taking the necessary steps to provide safety for your crew,” Carr says.
But having the shelters can also save on production time. If storms are headed a crew’s way, many might opt to just head home for the day. With the availability of a shelter, a crew can stay safe until the threat is over and return to work immediately, if possible.
“The loss of time and loss of money is minimized,” Carr says.