By Jane Jerrard
Published Monday, August 27, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
An Illinois firefighter looking for a change of scenery found just that when he took a break from his regular job to spend six months training, supervising and performing fire inspections in one of the coldest places—if not the coldest place—on earth: Antarctica.
How do you find such an unusual job? Alan Munger, a lieutenant with the Quincy Fire Department (QFD) admits, “I feel like it found me.” He was browsing listings for fire investigation jobs in the western United States and kept seeing the same ad for a contract position out of Colorado. He finally clicked on it, and discovered that it was a six-month-long position as fire lieutenant in Antarctica, offered through Denver-based Raytheon Polar Services.
Munger was so taken with the idea of working (and living) next door to the South Pole that he asked his chief for a six-month leave of absence. “The union had to approve it, too,” he recalls. “The city had just asked us [to take more furlough days], so I figured this way everyone could skip that.” And because Munger was granted the unpaid leave, no QFD firefighters had to take additional furloughs—though he says that the department ended up being short-staffed while he was away because of time lost to injuries. “If I were to ask for a leave of absence this year, I don’t think they’d give it to me,” he speculates.
Munger’s sabbatical started in mid-August 2011, when he flew to Denver for some training, and then to New Zealand where he waited with other contract firefighters for the weather to clear; after a week’s wait, they flew to McMurdo Station, a U.S. research station on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. Once there, they received intense training so they would be fully prepared to take over when the crew of winter contractors departed in October.
Business at the Bottom of the World
McMurdo is the largest community in Antarctica and home to the largest of three U.S. fire departments. That department runs two shifts, which cover the base and its two airstrips, or “ice runways.” At McMurdo, a heated garage holds standard fire trucks and a tanker. The airstrips are served by a full aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) station with two crash vehicles, Renegade vehicles and fire pumps. These vehicles are outfitted with tank-type tracks rather than tires.
All McMurdo firefighters rotate in on a six-month or one-year contract and serve a population of scientists and Air Force personnel that can swell to 1,100 in the “high season”—the Antarctic summer that begins in mid-October. Temperatures during the summer have been known to reach the low 30s, but in winter, the thermometer routinely drops to 80 below zero or colder.
Adapting to Extreme Conditions
The training Munger underwent for his trip was necessary in part because of some unique equipment and chemical suppressants that are used under the extreme weather conditions. For example, the Renegades at the airstrips use aqueous film forming foams (AFFF), foam concentrate and Purple K. “[Firefighters are] all trained in Purple-K and other chemicals, and use them for aircraft fires,” Munger explains. “The difference is, in Antarctica they don’t mix water with the concentrate.” The dry chemical is pumped with nitrogen pressure, and the pumps can be manually operated from inside the vehicle’s cab, if necessary. “I learned that you can do a lot with Purple K agent in extreme cold,” Munger says. “You could always use straight concentrate if you needed to; that will hold up in 80-degree temperatures.”
Munger also learned how to layer his clothing. He started with moisture-wicking inner materials and fleece under-layers, and topped off his ensemble with “Big Red”—a goosedown parka. “The clothing they issued was amazing,” he recalls. “I was never cold the whole time I was there.”
Unique Supervisory Challenges
Munger enjoyed the diversity of his responsibilities at McMurdo. “I was able to do a lot more, and do more hands-on,” he says. “Here [at QFD], our duties are divided up. But my agreement was that as an officer, I’d [be in charge of] a shift and was also in charge of the fire prevention program. So I inspected buildings and extinguishers—they maintain their own extinguishers and have their own extinguisher shop—and with my background in fire investigation, I became an investigator as well.”
Munger had the opportunity to investigate a few fires during his stint. “In one, a boiler overheated in one of the dormitories,” he says, “and the heat led to smoldering under the floor. I investigated and found improper insulation around the boiler. The National Science Foundation had civil engineers retrofit the other similar boilers so they did not touch the metal floors.”
Munger shared supervisory responsibilities with several lieutenants on his shift, and found it very different from managing a permanent group. “It really opens your eyes to the different management styles you’ve got to take on,” he says. “It was very challenging, because we worked with individuals from full-time departments, from volunteer departments and from part-time departments. We also had a group of contract firefighters who solely do stints like this, and had just come from a year in Iraq or Afghanistan or places like that.”
Of course, there was a wide array of personalities among these groups, and Munger said he worked fast to try to understand the motivations and issues with each individual. He did have to take disciplinary action with a few firefighters who were drinking alcohol to excess. According to Munger, they were quickly relieved of their duties. “But for the most part, everyone was great,” he says.
Overall, Munger greatly expanded his leadership skills in Antarctica, because lieutenants are frequently the highest officers available, particularly out at the airstrips. He enjoyed serving as incident commander in these situations and handling a wider variety of leadership issues than he usually faced in Illinois.
When managing crews with a wide range of skills, experience and work attitudes, he had to size up each individual and find a way to motivate each, whether through discipline, the promise of an ice-hockey break or simple guidance and instruction. “I ended up making a lot of quick decisions,” he recalls. “Luckily, I don’t have a problem with that.” But he admits he finds leading career firefighters back in Quincy to be much more straightforward.
Looking for a Change of Scenery?
Munger enjoyed his time in the harsh climate of Antarctica, and says the entire experience was a positive one. Any firefighters interested in learning about future contract positions in Antarctica can check with the current employer, Lockheed Martin, at www.lockheedmartin.com/us/isgs/antarctica.html.
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