For the past two weeks I have been in Denver, Colorado participating in training for prospective South Pole winterovers. During the first week we took the psychological exam, discussed critical stress management, and completed a 3-day customized emergency wilderness medicine and CPR course. During the summer at the South Pole it can take a full day at best to reach advanced medical care, and during the winter we will be more or less on our own for a solid 7-8 months.
The second week of training was devoted to fire fighting. In the summer, a small crew of professional fire fighters is stationed at the South Pole to manage emergencies with the aircraft operations, but during the winter there are no flights so all emergencies must be handled by the Emergency Response Teams (ERTs). All of the ~45 winterovers are assigned to one of the four teams: 1.”Hasty”, 2.Fire, 3.Logistics, and 4.Trauma.
Though perhaps only 10 people will be assigned to the Fire team it is important for everyone on site to understand the basic theory and nature of fire and be somewhat familiar with the equipment. Fires are not common in the Antarctic, but they are a constant threat with the dry static-filled environment and light insulated building materials. As on a ship, fire can quickly destroy the limited resources available for our survival. At Pole we train and plan to deal with a multitude of scenarios. As a last resort, one entire wing of the station is constructed as an “emergency pod,” fully equipped to stand alone with generators, communications equipment, and other emergency supplies. A large fire wall and freezer door separate it from the rest of the station – in theory able to support winterovers in the event that the rest of the station is destroyed by fire.
One of the worst Antarctic fires in recent times was at a Brazilian station in February of this year. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17168526 or http://news.discovery.com/earth/deadly-fire-incinerates-brazils-antarctic-base-120227.html)
In 1976 there were two fires at the South Pole construction camp. Thankfully no one was killed, but they did destroy a few buildings. Bill Spindler has put together a good description with lots of photos here: http://www.southpolestation.com/pole/welcome.html
Part of the training in Denver was a 5-day course at the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy. I expect to be on the Trauma/Medical team, but the fire training was amazing.
First off we learned how to don the cumbersome Bunker, or Turnout, gear and how to operate the full-face masks and positive pressure respirators. We started with drills like crawling through culvert pieces of decreasing diameter, and wooden boxes strung with wires meant to tangle and catch you. Then we practiced turning around and passing other fire fighters in full gear inside dark culvert pieces, barely 3ft in diameter. We crawled inside smoke filled buildings searching for “victims” and learned about the chemistry of fire and the various extinguisher types and methods. South Pole is slightly unique in that we really can’t use water to fight a fire – we just don’t have the necessary volume of liquid water available. Dry chem, some foam, and CO2 systems are the options.
One of the most exciting exercises involved the “Rib Shack”, a building designed and built as a fire training structure to allow the observation of fire development in a controlled setting. In full gear and on air, with several professional fire fighters keeping a close eye on us, they built a fire of wood pallets and straw in a large iron brazier. It was 80F outside and I could already feel the sweat running down my back inside the insulating bunker gear. It works great at keeping in and out. The thick pants, boots, and jacket feel surprisingly similar to the ECW I wear on the ice, perhaps why I felt so comfortable moving around in it. The full outfit is designed to protect from not only heat, but all sorts of hazards potentially encountered in the chaotic destruction of a fire. For example, steel plates in the soles of the boots to guard against stepping on nails.
The room filled slowly with smoke, curling across the ceiling and filling the space above our heads. Pale vapors wafted through the air beneath. The room we were in was made of concrete and brick – I hate to think of the fumes released from burning furniture and carpets. I could just barely feel the heat where my skin pressed close against my gear – on the outside of my shoulders, and the fronts of my quads (we were sitting on our heels, low to the ground. The fire grew quickly, crackling and popping. I took a deep breath, appreciating the seal of the mask and the clean cool air from the tank on my back. The air rushed in, filling my lungs with a Darth Vadar like sound. I exhaled silently. Around me I could hear the rushing breaths and the bleeping alarms when someone held still for a moment too long. The lead fire fighter instructed us to remove one glove and reach up. The air was thick with heat, increasing exponentially as I raised my bare fingers above my head. The bunker gear works remarkable well, insulating me from the growing heat and thickening smoke. Several times they had us stand up and see just how black it was with our heads in the smoke…a tangible undulating sea of smoke that looked almost like the surface of water. It pushed lower and lower and I looked around to see everyone ducking their heads instinctively. The noise of the fire, the rushing of air as we breathed in, the beeps and blips of the respirators filled my ears. It felt like an hour, but may have been only 10 minutes.
At last they ushered us out, and we were told the ceiling had reached close to 900F, over 300F on the floor. They warned us that our helmets and gear were hot enough to burn, so we unhooked our respirators and chatted excitedly as we watched them vent the structure. We got to help put out the fire with a hose, posing for a photo or two in front of the blaze.