Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chainsaw Certification

It's a good thing

Saturday April 27th--
5 volunteer sawyers from Massachusetts and two from Connecticut met at ATC's Kellogg Conservation Center for a re-certification of their chainsaw operators skills.

In the dim and distant past (over 10 years ago), just about anyone could drag their chainsaw out of their garage and head into the woods to take out trees that had fallen across the trail.  You can well imagine some pretty scary scenarios, deep in the woods with lots of sharp power equipment roaring away--even without being in Texas.

The AT has an excellent record regarding maintainer safety.   The Trail is a unit of the National Park Service and works closely with the National Forest Service.  Responsible managers from both agencies want to make sure that workers have access to the best possible training and education regarding work hazards they are likely to face on the job--even if they are "just" volunteers.  To that end the Park Service and Forest service require that anyone operating a chain saw on the AT (or cross cut saw--more about this later) must be be qualified to perform the work.  That is, they must know  correct techniques for maintaining and operating the equipment, have the required personal safety gear, and have a clear understanding of the physical forces involved when trees (or parts of trees) weighing 1000's of pounds are cut apart.  This applies also to crosscut (hand powered) saws, too.  Even 'tho the danger of being badly cut may be less, the forces released while cutting are still the same--and must be clearly understood and anticipated.
A volunteer explains to the instructor how he will cut and remove this fallen tree.

As you can imagine, the initial reaction by volunteer maintainers to this "nanny-state" interference with their work was vocal.  In some clubs it amounted to a minor rebellion.  Now, a decade down the road, certification is considered a reasonable and normal requirement by all but a small minority of volunteers.

Speaking personally, I took my first certification course in 1999.  While I was familiar with conventional carpentry tools like table saws and circular saws, I soon discovered I had much to learn and that cutting tree trunks in the woods is a lot different than cutting dressed lumber in the shop. 
A volunteer in the process of cutting a downed tree while instructor Peter Jensen observes her work.    



Truthfully, most volunteers (in a normal year) might go through at most a tank or two of gas operating their saws on the Trail--there just aren't that many situations where a chainsaw is truly needed.  The recent series of storms in New England and the Central Atlantic states have created many more situations where powered equipment is necessary--and there is the potential problem.  Sawyers with limited experience being put in a situation where they literally have days of work required to recover the Trail from storm damage.  In my first certification class in '99, I learned just enough to keep me from cutting my feet off by accident.  4 re-certifications later, I'm fairly competent--but learn new things with every class.  Most importantly, I know when to walk away from a situation that I can't handle.  When the trees trunks are piled like pick-up-sticks from a big storm along miles of trail, it takes a cautious and experienced team of sawyers to get the work done safely.

Sawyers are certified in two skill Classes:  Class A are certified for small limbs and branches in 'non-complex' situations (usually single logs across relatively flat terrain) and are typically first-time operators.  After 3 years, 'A' Sawyers are eligible to re-certify as Class B and take training that addresses more complex situations involving larger trunks and complex interactions between multiple downed trees.  Sawyers of either classification must renew (or 're-cert') every three years.  Class C sawyers are typically professional instructors.
Instructor Peter Jensen (partially behind tree) discusses the cuts needed to fell this tree.

Most trail maintenance situations can usually be handled by hand tools like axes and bow saws--but an understanding of the forces involved when an uprooted tree lies across the treadway makes the work safer and more efficient--regardless of the tools at hand.

Chainsaw operation is pretty rare for most Trail maintainers.  Trail clubs typically have a corps of certified sawyers who are able to tackle specific situations where the regular maintainer may be out of their comfort zone.  Clubs can also bring certified volunteer sawyers to bear when natural events create wide-spread or localized heavy damage.  Only the saw operator needs certification, other can assist by being 'swampers' helping to remove the cut debris under the direction of the sawyer.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) provides funding for volunteers to train and certify with professional instructors and provides funding for all required safety equipment (including those fashionable orange chaps).

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