Antarctic firefighter discusses unique challenges on continent of extremes

Lt. John Piper, who is on his third austral summer season working at McMurdo Station, explains a typical day working as a firefighter in Antarctica


By Lt. John Piper, FireRescue1 Contributor

I am a firefighter on the continent where fire is the greatest danger to everyone – Antarctica.

Antarctica is a continent of extremes. It is covered with ice, but it is also a desert. Seventy-five percent of the Earth’s fresh water is locked in its ice cap, but frozen water does you no good when fighting fires. The air is so dry that static electricity can shock you when you touch an object.

A firefighter returns to the South Pole dome after responding to a false alarm. (Photo/Kristan Hutchison with the National Science Foundation)
A firefighter returns to the South Pole dome after responding to a false alarm. (Photo/Kristan Hutchison with the National Science Foundation)

Maintaining an agent in a liquid state in fire hoses is difficult when temperatures are below freezing, and sustained winds can surpass hurricane force. The combination of aridity, cold and high winds could mean disaster for a town that is an eight-hour flight from the closest civilization.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), funding and providing logistical support to world-class research that cannot be done elsewhere on Earth.

This is my third austral summer season working at McMurdo Station, the largest research station on the continent. With about 100 buildings covering almost a square mile, researchers and support staff live in dormitories, eat in a cafeteria and have offices in multiple buildings.

The population will climb to nearly 1,000 during the austral summer, which lasts from October through February and is signified by sunlight 24 hours a day; and then drop back down to about 150 people during the winter darkness. Flights departing from New Zealand arrive several times a week during the summer, bringing in staff and cargo.

The aridity of Antarctica makes any type of fire an extreme danger. (Photo/Kristan Hutchison with the National Science Foundation)

A typical day

Our work day begins with many similarities to most fire departments back home. We work two shifts (A and B), 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off with a Kelly Day off every seventh shift when staffing allows.

During the busy summer, it's not uncommon for firefighters to work 80 to 100 hours per week staffing one of two stations in the McMurdo Area; Station One in McMurdo and Station Two at one of our two local airfields.

To start the day, officers attend a meeting with the fire chief prior to the morning shift change. Following the officers’ briefing at 0800, both shifts circle up for the morning briefing in the apparatus bay to exchange information.

Everyone attends these briefings, from the fire chief to the line staff. The predicted weather conditions of the day and expected or canceled flights are often the main topics of discussion.

The McMurdo Fire Department maintains a crew at the local airfields to provide aircraft rescue and firefighting. (Photo/Jack Green with the National Science Foundation)

Station One - McMurdo

Station One is very much like a small professional neighborhood fire department in the states.

A fire/EMS crew responds to 911 calls just as we do back home. 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 program.

Slips, trips and falls are the most common injuries. Frostbite and hypothermia are rarer here than back home in my native Texas. We are trained to recognize the danger of cold exposure and avoid it.

After the morning briefing, four to six firefighters will remain at Station One to staff Engine One and Ambulance One; the remaining part of the crew boards a van and heads out to Station Two.

Building inspections are part of our 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.

Station Two

McMurdo Station maintains two airports during the austral summer that must be staffed with ARFF-certified firefighters.

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 U.S. Air Force C-17s, that transport personnel and cargo at the beginning and end of the summer season land at Pegasus Field.

Emergency personnel stand by at Pegasus Airfield near McMurdo Station. (Photo/Peter Rejcek with the National Science Foundation)

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 planes.

After the morning circle-up briefing, eight firefighters head to Station Two at one of the airfields for a 24-hour shift. They will relieve the crew getting off duty.

Phoenix Airfield, primarily serving intercontinental flights provided by the U.S. 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 firefighters 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.

Unique challenges

The responsibility of an Antarctic firefighter is not different from your typical stateside department, but the methods that we use to accomplish the missions often are.

In the winter, we 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 we 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 U.S.

Another unique challenge is the wildlife. Everyone must abide by the Antarctic Conservation Act, which is U.S. law that prohibits interfering with the wildlife. The U.S. 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.

Firefighters 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 – we are all we 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 our greatest danger. The smallest fire could grow into something that could potentially destroy many buildings or critical infrastructures, leaving us exposed to the harshest conditions on Earth.

Many of the people who choose to work for the program are seeking to satisfy a hunger for knowledge and travel. They are very curious sorts who want to see the world. It's not uncommon to meet someone who is working as a dish washer or janitor only to discover that their real job back home is as a medical doctor or retired executive.

We come to Antarctica for the adventure of a lifetime, but it is the untouched beauty of this pristine continent and the amazing people, here to support world-class scientific research, that keep us returning.

About the author
John M. Piper is a Lieutenant firefighter-paramedic and an EMS Training Officer for the Antarctic Fire Department at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Prior to joining the Antarctic Fire Department, Piper served as full-time firefighter-paramedic in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex with the Little Elm Fire Department. Piper also serves with the Summer and Winter Antarctic Search And Rescue and the U.S. and New Zealand Joint Search And Rescue Team in Antarctica.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 FireRescue1.com. All rights reserved.