A Fun Visit to the Fire Department

A Fun Visit to the Fire Department

Hello from beautiful , downtown McMurdo Station!  It was snowy all day today, and the temperature was about  21 degrees F with a wind chill of -14 degrees F. It was quite windy all day today, but that didn’t keep me from having some fun! 


I went out to the WISSARD test site, where we are now packing up to get ready for the traverse team.  They will haul our entire drill/science site 600 miles from McMurdo Station to the location above Lake Whillans. More on that next week!  On the return trip to McMurdo I did snap a great photo of Ob Hill, covered with a light dusting of snow from last night and early this morning.


This afternoon I stopped at the McMurdo Fire Station to see Natalie, who I met on my C-17 flight to the ice.  She was the last firefighter to arrive on station this season.  All together there are 44 firefighters based at three stations. 

Fire Station Sign

Station #1 is the main station in McMurdo, while station #2 is out at the Pegasus airfield.  Station #3 is at the South Pole. Firefighters work 24 hours on shift, then 24 hours off.  There are usually 7 people on duty at the Pegasus airfield and 5-6 on duty here in McMurdo.  The firefghters are also either an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) or a paramedic.  Paramedics are allowed to administer medicines if needed and perform other procedures, while the EMT gives basic life support and cannot administer drugs.  The stations are made up of the Chief (Paul), firefighters, officers, a mechanic and someone on dispatch 24 hours a day.


McMurdo station has two trucks, called tanker pumpers and they each hold 2,000 gallons of water.  They are custom built for the extreme Antarctic environment.  There are also two ambulances; one stays here in McMurdo and one is out at the Pegasus runway.  The station at the South Pole uses a special Caterpillar Challenger tractor because of conditions there.  The CAT tractor pulls firefighting sleds.  Those sleds are quite heavy.  The custom built cab seats five people.  They refer to this beast as “Elephant Man.”

Even though this is not an extremely busy firehouse, emphasis is placed on training drills and staying sharp.  Fires can spread very quickly with the dry conditions and strong winds in McMurdo.  When they have free time the firefighters are either training, cleaning the equipment, or can be assigned other tasks to do around McMurdo.  They do special training with the Search and Rescue (SAR) team, and at times they might be required to work with SAR out in the field.

Timing is everything.  If a 911 call came in to the firehouse, it would take only 2-3 minutes for the fire truck and ambulance to reach dorm 203…that’s where I live.   In 6-7 minutes they can be at Scott Base to assist if needed.  Scott Base does have their own well-trained fire brigade. 

The combined experience of all of the firefighters in McMurdo is quite impressive. 

Natalie introduced me to Matt, Jake, and Justin.  They were headed out to do a job in McMurdo and asked me if I wanted to tag along.  YES! 

I climbed up into the back seat of the fire truck and away we went!


Matt showed me where my headset was so I could talk with him while riding in the truck.  He also demonstrated how the air tank (with straps like a backpack) can pop right out of its holder and can be put on quickly. 


We were headed down near the ice pier, where their task was to spray high pressure water to unblock a culvert that was frozen.  They are the only group in town that has the right equipment for this type of job.  Jake ran the controls while Matt and Justin waded into the freezing cold water to unclog this culvert.  I didn’t get a photo of Jake (sorry Jake!) but this shows Matt with the controls.


The job begins…



Eventually they put on a different sort of nozzle…to spray the water with more force and volume.


I was down wind the first time Matt tried it, and got an icy blast of cold water blown onto me!  My camera wasn’t the same for a few minutes, as you can see in this photo.


Here is a short video clip showing Matt just after the water started flowing again.

When they broke through the ice clogging the culvert, Matt asked me if I wanted a turn to spray water from the hose….of course I said “Yes!”


Next he told me to turn the nozzle, just like you would a garden hose, and the spray was even larger!  Notice that Matt had to brace me, so I wouldn’t fall over. 


On the way back to “town” (we really weren’t far away) they stopped at one of the eight fire hydrants in McMurdo.  I didn’t even know we  had fire hydrants, and these certainly don’t look like they do at home! They are fed water from pipes with insulation around them.  The water is also heated.  This is a very different environment for firefighting.


While Matt hooked in one end of the hose (above), Justin hooked the other end to the truck (below).  It was only a matter of minutes before the truck was fully loaded with water again.



 At this point I went back through my dorm and picked up my backpack to head to the station again.   I had a great chat with Chief Paul, who I had actually met as my shuttle driver going to/from Scott Base a week ago.  I really enjoy hearing how people volunteer for other jobs here in McMurdo, and it really shows a community spirit.  

 I wasn’t done with my tour yet!  There was more to learn and experience!

 A firefighter has to put on their gear very quickly.  It takes less than 2 minutes for them to put all of the gear on. They always leave it in a state of readiness, as shown below.  One of the paramedics/firefighters, Phil, let me try on his gear.  It is very heavy and although it’s bulky, I didn’t have much trouble hopping into the boots and pants, because they were ready to go.



Step one:  jump into boots and pants.


Next came the coat and hat.  We tried to use my flash and the photo was really dark because the camera reacts to all of the reflective strips on the pants and coat.



 Last came the air tank (which is sort of like putting on a heavy backpack).

When I got done putting on the gear, it was next to impossible for me to climb up into the truck without Phil’s help.  I couldn’t even lift up my legs high enough because the steps are so steep.  Phil helped me out!


Last stop on my tour…the ambulance. 


This was a great visit!  I feel safe knowing that these firefighters and paramedics/EMT’s are here in McMurdo in case of emergency.  They support the scientists and community with their work.  Thanks to the staff at the McMurdo Fire Department for sharing their station with me. You made my day!


6 responses to “A Fun Visit to the Fire Department

  1. Maybe Karl would be interested in being a Paramedic down there… Don’t see that position advertised much with AAD…
    Loving the blogs!!!!

  2. I love this blog!! I would not have thought about a fully functional fire department on the ice. EMTs and paramedics yes, but firefighters, no. Very cool equipment and gear and you look like you fit right in!! I can only imagine how their equipment is specialized because of the extreme temperatures; water won’t help if its frozen!! The suits that the firemen wear look similar to those worn by firefighters here. Are their’s modified for not only extreme heat but also extreme cold?


  3. Hi Cassie, Good question at the end of your comment. The answer is no, not really modified for the cold. They can wear extra layers underneath, but honestly the gear is so heavy and warm already, I don’t think they need it. They might wear extra face protection if they are out for a longer time, but even then they have special masks and gloves that are super thick. That was a FUN visit that day for sure! 🙂

  4. i love it perfect i just love it so much and nice fire truck and cool airplane and was your suit glowing in the dar or was that sun

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