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Antarctica Is Looking for a Few Good Firefighters

Antarctica Is Looking for a Few Good Firefighters
From Wired - September 13, 2017

Antarcticas summer season is about to begin, which means hundreds of scientists are preparing to head south to conduct experiments on melting glaciers, migrating penguins, and elusive neutrinos. But so, too, will the support staff of the United States Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, population 1,100. McMurdo is a company town of sorts: It has its own air traffic controller, machine shop, IT help desk, dormitory housing, three bars, yoga classes, hiking trailsand fire department.

In fact, there are still openings for qualified firefighters who are willing to spend up to five months enduring bitter cold (mean temperature 0 degrees F), desolation (2,415 miles from New Zealand), and occasional cabin fever in exchange for living in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. While the Antarctica gig only lasts a few months, it also takes a takes special skillsfrom how to suit up for below-zero rescues in a crevasse on the nearby Ross Sea ice sheet to putting out a nasty fire on an incoming airplane engine.

McMurdo is a small industrial town, says assistant fire chief Andre Fleurette, who is preparing for his 17th deployment to Antarctica. And it has all the problems of a small industrial town." The fire departmentmade up of 46 firefighters and paramedics, including five full-time dispatchers and a mechanicresponds to about 350 emergency calls every year. "Small fires, odor complaints, and hazardous materials responses are the most common," says Fleurette. More serious problems are rare, especially because anyone who goes to the outpost, from scientists to support personnel, are pre-screened for medical conditions. The Antarctic population is generally younger and fitter than the average US population, so they are less likely to have a medical emergency. And they are all required to undergo fire safety training before coming to McMurdo.

So how do you fight fires in Antarctica, the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth? Despite the temperatures, Fleurette says they still use water pumped through hoses. The key is to keep the water constantly moving inside the pumper truck so it doesnt freeze. They also do not turn the water on until they are ready to spray the fire; any liquid left inside the hose will freeze in just a few minutes. The custom Antarctic fire trucks come with stainless steel valves. That's because the reverse osmosis process that turns seawater into water for the base also leaches minerals from other type of metal pipes, Fleurette says.

Out at the McMurdo ice runway, firefighters stand by for every incoming flight with special de-icing foam made with ethylene glycol and purple K or potassium bicarbonatethat are smother engine fires or dripping oil. Firefighters use similar sprays and foams up north, but these variants used at McMurdo are rated for 40 degrees below zero.

Firefighters also have to be dressed and ready to work in any condition, says Fleurette. Wind is king, he says. When we are approaching an emergency we prepare for some serious constant winds. Frostbite is a constant threat, even in sunny weather. That's because of the adiabatic winds that can blow for days at a time from the South Pole toward McMurdo, creating perfect conditions to whip up flames.

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