Fire stations of the world: The Antarctic Fire Department
The Antarctic Fire Department (AFD) supports the advancement of world science through fire/rescue support services on the highest, driest, windiest, coldest and ultimately harshest continent on the planet, Antarctica. Based on Ross Island, the Antarctic Fire Department provides the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) with professional emergency services at McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott Station and the United States Air Force airfields. The AFD is responsible for all emergency response for the USAP including fire, rescue, EMS, hazmat and other emergency situations. If someone calls for help, the Antarctic Fire Department responds. In addition to protecting USAP operations, the AFD also provides mutual-aid response to the volunteer fire brigade at nearby Scott Base, New Zealand's research station. The AFD employs nearly 55 personnel, deployed between McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott stations. Assigned to one of two fire companies, AFD personnel work rotating 24-hours shifts on a Kelly work schedule. Personnel are assigned to serve at both stations at McMurdo and on each piece of apparatus on a rotating basis. Those assigned to South Pole Station remain at the South Pole for the duration of their assignment. At McMurdo, 13 pieces of apparatus are operated and housed at two separate stations. Station 1 (headquarters) is centrally-located within the urban sprawl of McMurdo Station. Station 2 is located at McMurdo International Airport and covers the Ice Runway, William's Field and Pegasus Ice Runway airfields for the USAF.
Station 1 is very much like a small professional neighbourhood fire department in the US. A fire/EMS crew responds to 911 calls. The call volume is small, partly due to general good health of the population and the constant eye on safety and prevention that everyone adopts as a way of life in the programme. Slips, trips and falls are the most common injuries. Frostbite and hypothermia are rarer here than back in the US. They are trained to recognise the danger of cold exposure and avoid it. Station 1 houses Engines 1 and 2, Tender 1, Ambulance 1, Rescue 1 and Scat 1.
After the morning briefing, four to six fire fighters will remain at Station 1 to staff Engine 1 and Ambulance 1; the remaining part of the crew boards a van and heads out to Station 2.
Building inspections are part of the daily grind at the firehouse. Even a small fire here could be catastrophic; we take great pride in our inspections, building codes and rules to prevent the possibility of fires in any of our buildings. Even the loss of a small hut used to store goods is very costly and can take a long time to obtain supplies to rebuild.
McMurdo Station maintains two airports during the austral summer that must be staffed with ARFF-certified fire fighters.
Phoenix Airfield, located about 12 miles from town on the Ross Ice Shelf, is built out of snow that has been compacted to the hardness of ice. Heavy wheeled jets, such as the US Air Force C-17s, that transport personnel and cargo at the beginning and end of the summer season land at Pegasus Field. Station 2 houses the metal and rubber-tracked ARFF units: Red 1, Red 2, Red 3, Red 4, Red 5, Red 6, Red 7 and also Ambulance 2. The apparatus at Station 2 are distributed and dispatched to the different airfields depending on the current flight activity. Williams Field Ski-way, located about five miles from town (also on the ice shelf), has a soft-snow landing strip and is used for ski-equipped aircraft only, such as LC-130 Hercules and DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft.
Phoenix Airfield, primarily serving intercontinental flights provided by the US Air Force, is staffed only when a flight is arriving or taking off. It requires an ARFF crew of up to eight.
Williams Field Ski-way is staffed by eight fire fighters 24/7 due to the larger number of flights using this airfield, most of which are flying intracontinental missions to deep field camps and to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Antarctic Fire Department personnel
AFD's personnel come from all over the United States and from varying backgrounds in the fire service. In addition to their previous experience in the fire service, the one thing they all have in common is their appetite for adventure. The Antarctic Fire Department poses a challenging but rewarding opportunity for fire fighters across the nation. AFD fire fighters are employed on a contractual basis, serving anywhere from three to 13 months on the ice for each deployment.
Antarctic fire operations are performed where the most extreme environmental conditions on earth exist, south of 60 degrees latitude. With the extreme temperatures and working conditions, it takes a special person to work in the Antarctic environment as a fire fighter. As such, the AFD prides itself on having the most diverse, dedicated and resilient personnel of any fire department in the world. The department offers the unique opportunity to go where few people have gone before or ever will go. Antarctica is one of the few places on earth that remain unscathed from permanent human population/presence and wields a serene beauty that is beyond words.
Working in Antarctica is challenging but ultimately rewarding as well. While deployed, fire fighters learn vital skills that educate and protect them from the Antarctic environment and also help them understand and preserve the pristine eco-system they work around.
The responsibility of an Antarctic fire fighter is not different from your typical stateside department but the methods that they use to accomplish the missions often are.
In the winter, they must don extreme cold weather gear just to venture outside for brief moments. In the coldest winter months, exposed skin can burn with frostbite in seconds. Working in the wind and cold are huge distractions and it's a challenge to do simple tasks, such as tying off a rope, refueling or simply checking off the apparatus. A large hood, goggles, neck-gator and huge gloves or mittens make every task a challenge.
Add the 24-hour darkness of winter days and it can be a huge character builder. Larger tasks take long hours and require many breaks to warm up. Nothing is easy in Antarctica but they overcome and unite as a team to meet the challenges. The extreme cold takes a toll on all the equipment and it's very difficult to get replacements for anything quickly in Antarctica due to the long logistical chain from the US.
Another unique challenge is the wildlife. Everyone must abide by the Antarctic Conservation Act, which is US law that prohibits interfering with the wildlife. The US is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty which also governs such interactions. Seals, penguins and skies (a seagull-type bird) are always present in the summer months and it is not uncommon to find one sleeping in the middle of an active runway. Fire fighters are trained in seal and penguin-herding to safely encourage the wildlife to move off the landing strips.
Unlike in the ‘real world’, there are no mutual-aid options here; they are all they have and there is no one else to call. The closest mutual-aid response time would come from New Zealand or Australia and depending on the weather, could be weeks away. This is why fire is their greatest danger. The smallest fire could grow into something that could potentially destroy many buildings or critical infrastructures, leaving them exposed to the harshest conditions on Earth.
Antarctic fire operations
Providing emergency services on the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth has forced the Antarctic Fire Department to develop and implement innovative, effective tools and tactics for Antarctic fireground operations.
The environment proves challenging but the AFD continues to provide the services necessary to keep McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott stations safe from the threat of fire.
Target hazards for the AFD include nearly every structure. All buildings are considered critical to USAP operations and the loss of a single structure could effectively shut down a significant portion of station operations, if not the entire station altogether.
Major target hazards within McMurdo Station alone include the Crary Scientific Laboratory, the heart of McMurdo Station's operational purpose, as well as the Heavy Shop (vehicle maintenance facility), power plant, water treatment facility, water de-salination facility, multiple fossil-fuel storage tanks, airfields and aircraft, various storage facilities, station dormitories and miscellaneous hazardous materials around the station.
At Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, every square inch is vital to station operations. Damage from fire could have catastrophic consequences for station operations. Similar to Mcmurdo, hazards also include the scientific laboratories, various hazmat, power plants and airfields.
Considering the extreme environment in which the Antarctic Fire Department operates and the devastating effect the loss of any structure could have on McMurdo Station operations, great emphasis is placed on fire prevention, department preparedness, timely response, incident mitigation and prevention. Because prevention is the first step in fire control, the Antarctic Fire Department assigns an officer to oversee fire prevention practices, compliance and education on McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
All USAP personnel are required to undergo training in fire prevention practices and also the use of basic fire suppression tools such as extinguishers. The prevention officer ensures that each USAP structure is thoroughly inspected at least once a month by on-duty crews and that any issues discovered are corrected in a timely fashion. The Antarctic Fire Department’s prevention division also inspects, maintains and re-charges/services all fire extinguishers for the USAP.
Training never ends in the fire service and there is no place where that holds more true than the harsh reality that is Antarctica. The fire department must be prepared to quickly deploy and mitigate any emergency that may arise. The AFD continually trains so that personnel are familiar with all areas and idiosyncrasies of McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, locations of both hazards and resources, and equipment and tactics necessary to complete their mission.
In addition to their previous fire service experience and training, all AFD personnel are sent through a rapid, intensive airport rescue and fire fighting (ARFF) academy at a state-of-the-art aircraft training and fire simulation centre in the United States.
Once deployed to Antarctica, AFD personnel continue to train each shift between crews and other station personnel, practicing and perfecting rapid response tactics and techniques.
The AFD is held to strict response requirements, which include arriving on-scene of any incident reported within two minutes of dispatch. This also includes incidents at all USAP airfields. All United States Antarctic Programme buildings are outfitted with state-of-the-art fire detection and alerting systems, which report directly to the emergency communications centres, located in the respective hearts of McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott Stations. For the US military airfields, the AFD provides ‘hard-stand’ ie AFD fire crews stand-by in ARFF apparatus on taxi-ways, for the departure and arrival of all USAF aircraft.
For working fireground operations, the AFD utilises a combination of traditional and extreme weather tactics for fire suppression.
Class 1 engines and the water tender unit run simple water, with the Class 1 engines having the ability to convert to foam operations within moments.
McMurdo Station has an intricate water supply system that supplies the entire station with potable water through insulated piping above-ground. Throughout this system are strategically placed ‘hydrant’ hook-ups that the AFD utilises in the event of a fire. Structures are also sprinklered and have stand-pipe connections for interior fire operations.
ARFF apparatus are equipped with either water, compressed air foam, Purple K dry chemical fire retardant or a combination thereof. The multiple suppression methods ensure any aircraft incident can be effectively mitigated.
Emergency medical operations
Just like in the US, Antarctica residents dial 9-1-1 for medical emergencies.
At McMurdo Station, the AFD operates two rescue ambulances and has fire fighter/paramedics assigned to each station on each shift. In the event of an emergency, the Antarctic Fire Department responds, assesses the patient, transports the patient to McMurdo General Hospital, the station's medical centre.
McMurdo General Hospital is equipped as a small but effective emergency department capable of treating most medical conditions and some emergency surgical procedures, if necessary. If more definitive treatment is required, the Antarctic Fire Department assists McMurdo Station's medical staff with ambulance transfer to one of the USAF airfields, where an awaiting aircraft transports the patient to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Source: Antarctic Fire Department
Photos: Woody Fleming, Doug Williamson