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From the Archives: Antarctica Fire: Public Safety Under Down Under

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-11-30
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Originally published in our January, 2003 issue.

The Antarctica Fire Department at McMurdo Station.  Twenty-one of the Station's full time summer staff of 46 are shown, along with three of their dispatchers.  Firefighting in Antarctica has its own unique challenges, not the least of which is the weather. The temperature at the time of this exclusive 9-1-1 Magazine photo (Dec. 15, 2002), for example, was -37ºF wind-chill. Photo: Rainna Meyer.

McMurdo Station is Antarctica's largest community.  It is built on the bare volcanic rock of Ross Island, the farthest south solid ground on earth that is accessible by ship.  McMurdo is a complex logistics staging facility for scientific research teams stationed in Antarctica.  The community contains more than 100 structures including a harbor, an outlying airport with landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. 

Providing public safety for this remote facility is a full time paid fire department.  Since Antarctica has no government, McMurdo’s firefighters, dispatchers, and other public safety personnel operate under Colorado standards, the home state of contractor Raytheon Polar Services, which provides logistical support for the Station.  The majority of firefighters working in Antarctica come from paid and volunteer fire departments throughout the US.  There is no municipal police agency, although the NSF representative assigned to McMurdo is a deputized US Marshal, just in case enforcement powers are needed. 

McMurdo Station's Fire Station 1.  Part-time fire brigades protect Antarctica's other research stations.  McMurdo maintains the only true Fire Department on the continent. Photo: Lori Gravelle

The other research stations in Antarctica, such as Russia’s Volstock Station, New Zealand’s Scott Base, and the Italian Terra Nova base, are protected by part-time fire brigades.  McMurdo Station has the proud distinction of being the only Fire Department on the continent.  “We are the only location in all of Antarctica that has paid, certified firefighters,” said McMurdo Dispatch supervisor Lori Gravelle, who has spent three seasons under Down Under. 

Personnel from more than 20 US states have served at McMurdo’s Antarctic fire stations.  “We are a very diverse fire department brought together under extreme working conditions,” said one Antarctic firefighter.  “All the firefighters are qualified and certified.  Our gear is the same as that used in the US with the exception that we sometimes have more layers on, and our gear is not custom fitted due to the high turnover rate of seasonal work.”  The Antarctic Fire Department is a member of the Colorado Fire Fighting Association.

McMurdo’s firefighters maintain a close rapport with their neighbors at New Zealand’s Scott Base, located 3 km away.  In fact, each would support the other in the event of a mutual aid request.  “We occasionally train with their brigade,” said Gravelle.  “They share our airfields, use our hospital and recreate here.”

Search and Rescue Haglunds during a training exercise in 2000. Photo: Brian McAthren.

Fire department staffing increases during the Antarctic summer (October-February) to 46 personnel, including four dispatchers, 21 firefighters, 9 Lieutenants, and command staff.  During the fierce winter (February-August), when McMurdo’s population plummets to a couple hundred or less, fire department staffing decreases to eight firefighters, three command staff, and one dispatcher.  The latter works a 10-12-hour day shift six days a week while remaining on call at all times during the seven-month Antarctic winter. “There is lots of ‘overtime,’ although we are all salaried,” said Gravelle.  “But we have lots to do and lots to learn in a very short time.”

During the summer, McMurdo Fire operates three stations – one in McMurdo proper, one in Ice Town (at the temporary runway on the sea ice used in summer months), and one at Pegasus Airfield – stretching fire department staffing to provide rotating 24-on/24-off shifts between each station.  “Once Ice Town is broken down at the end of December, it moves to Williams Field [a snow runway used by ski-equipped planes], but we still operate three crews,” said Gravelle.  Station Two, at Ice Town, is required to maintain two ARFF (Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting) units on ‘hard standby’ for any flight movement. 

McMurdo firefighters engage in search-and-rescue training on the Antarctic ice in 2001.
Photo via Lori Gravelle

The fire department’s fleet consists of two engines, one water tender, one transportation van, one command truck, and two ambulances (one in town and one kept at the airfield).  Most of the vehicles have oversized tires to accommodate movement across snow and ice.  The five ARFF apparatus that protect the airfields are tracked vehicles with tank-treads to accommodate the more formidable snowcover that surrounds the runways.  . . . . . . . . . 

Dispatch is housed in Fire Station One.  Call volume is more than one might expect for a remote research station at the bottom of the world.  Since the 2002-2003 season began on October 1st, the Antarctic Fire Department had run more than 100 emergency calls by mid December.

"Red-2" beside the Ice Runway performing a “hard stand” – a safety standby required for each plane that lands and takes off.  Mt. Discovery is 47 miles off in the distance.  Photo: Lori Gravelle

Fire crews handle fires, fire alarms, medical calls, hazmat spills, odor investigations, assists, and so on.  In addition, fire crews perform building inspections, truck checks, maintenance, and engage in daily training.  Firefighters are cross-trained with basic dispatch skills in order to cover meal breaks or emergency staffing shortages in the communications center.  Some calls can be routine but others can often involve hazardous materials.  An active furnace fire at COSRAY (the Cosmic Ray Dome) in December, 2002, for example, challenged firefighters because the facility also holds radioactive material.

McMurdo General hospital is staffed in the summer months with up to four doctors (one of whom is a military flight surgeon; they do two week rotations at McMurdo) and one dentist.  In the winter time the station makes do with a single doctor (and no dentist). 

Left: McMurdo firefighters training in 'flowing water' at the ice pier, in this 1999 photo.  Notice the ice cycles hanging from their clothes and helmets.  Photo: Tim Foster.

Everyone working at McMurdo Station is given training in survival through a program called FSTP (Field Safety Training Program).  Workers, including dispatchers, learn how to build and sleep in snow domes and survive alone on ice.  Safety is a big part of life in Antarctica.  All vehicles venturing out on the ice have survival bags in them, each with enough supplies for two people to survive for a week.  The instructors of the FSTP program make up the core of a combined American/New Zealand Search And Rescue team, supplemented with volunteers from other jobs, which provides SAR response to people injured or lost on the ice.

Since the 2000-2001 season, dispatchers have been providing pre-arrival medical instructions on EMS calls, using medical protocols from the former EMD Association of Colorado.  “We practice EMD under Colorado laws,” said Gravelle.  “The cards we use are based on the Colorado state EMD cards.”  EMD in Antarctica came about only after Gravelle took a call for a cardiac arrest three summers ago – and provided pre-arrival instructions from memory, based on her experience in Vail using the Colorado EMD Association cards.  “That was used as an example of the need to have EMD card available to the dispatchers here,” said Gravelle.

McMurdo Fire engine "Red-4," an ARFF vehicle, at the Ice Runway.  The unit is plugged into shore line outside Firehouse 2 in order to keep it “warm” or at least able to start. Photo: Lori Gravelle.

“The town trains on a large scale for multiple casualty incidents (MCI) several times a year,” said Gravelle, “but does so in the hopes that we’ll never need to implement our MCI plan.”  The last such incident occurred in 1978, when a New Zealand-based commercial sightseeing plane crashed into the side of Mt.  Erebus, killing all 257 on board.  That incident effectively ended site-seeing tours of Antarctica by air.

Weather is perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Antarctica, especially for those workers displaced from warmer regions of the USA.  Recorded temperatures in McMurdo range from –50C (-58F) in August to 8C (44.8F) in January (the south pole itself nurtures a whole different climate).  The coldest wind-chill Gravelle recalls was –117F, two winters ago.  “Not much snow actually falls here, but when it does it drifts in and over everything from the blowing wind,” Gravelle said.  Once the wind blew a C141 Starlifter aircraft more than twenty feet across the runway.  “Often in the cold weather, however, the air is filled with ‘diamond dust’ as the humidity freezes and dances like millions of tiny diamonds,” Gravelle said.  Average wind speed at McMurdo is 11.2 mph.  A gust of 125 mph was recorded last August. 

 “Depending on where you are, this continent boasts being the coldest, driest, windiest place on earth,” Gravelle grinned, with perhaps a touch of pride.

You don't see sunsets like this very often in Antarctica.  This was one of the last of the year 2002 season, taken in October, looking toward the Royal Society Mountains, which stand about 47 miles from McMurdo across the bay.  Antarctica won't see another sunset until late February, 2001.

SEE COMPANION STORY:  McMurdo Station, Antarctica: The Ultimate Dispatch Challenge by John M. Eller

9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3.  Since retirement, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several fields of interest.  

Several photos in this archive were not previously published due to space limitations, and are presented here for the first time.




A good reminder to make sure your exterior door is shut during a snow storm.  This door blew open… and you can see the result. Photo: Lori Gravelle, 2000.


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