Nowhere to Go
McMurdo Station in Antarctica is one of the world’s most isolated research outposts. For the station’s scientists and support personnel, fire safety is serious business.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
By Carol Fey
At 5:30 a.m. on December 2, 2010, the turbocharger disintegrated on engine number four in the power plant at McMurdo Station, a research outpost perched on the edge of Antarctica. Pieces of the turbocharger were blown into the engine, which shot jet fuel onto the exhaust manifold, producing powerful flames. The alarm system activated, and the station’s firefighters and fire techs were notified. A fire in the power plant was serious business, and everyone wondered how bad it was.
It could be very bad at McMurdo, since the station’s survival depends upon its ability to produce its own electricity. The loss of the power plant could mean no heat, light, or communications for 1,000 scientists and support personnel working at a remote and isolated U.S. science station on the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth. Short of an emergency evacuation by the U.S. Air Force, there’s nowhere to go. The nearest "normal" civilization — New Zealand — is a five-hour, 2,400-mile (3,862-kilometer) flight away, much of it over frozen ocean, and even in the summer months the weather can be unpredictable, sometimes delaying flights for days.
Safety is taken extremely seriously at McMurdo, and fire protection is the most serious of all. There are two complete fire stations, and NFPA codes are used extensively throughout the facility. A special team of fire techs addresses a host of fire safety issues, and plans are in place to upgrade the station’s fire communications network.
On the morning of December 2, though, all that mattered was that there was a fire, a potentially very big one, in the power plant. No one had to be told what was at stake.
Deep-freeze fire threat
Cold is the enduring condition of Antarctica. In August, during the depth of winter, temperatures at McMurdo range from an average high of -9°F (-23°C) to an average low of -25°F (-32°C) , and it is always dark. The simplest outdoor tasks, such as handling tools or even walking, become complex challenges. In January, at the height of summer, highs average 31°F (-0.5°C) and lows average 22°F (-5.5°C), and the sun never sets. And McMurdo is mild compared to much of the continent, which routinely sees temperatures of -100°F (-73°C) or colder in winter. Winds can top 200 miles (322 kilometers) per hour. The continent’s average elevation is 8,200 feet (2,499 meters) above sea level, and at its thickest, the Antarctic ice is three miles (five kilometers) deep. Even so, the continent’s average annual snowfall is a mere two inches (five centimeters). Storms can last for days, but they mostly redistribute debris and old snow rather than depositing new. The McMurdo Dry Valleys rarely get any precipitation at all.
McMurdo Station, located on the southern tip of Ross Island on the shore of McMurdo Sound, is named for Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of H.M.S. Terror, the ship that first charted the area in 1841 under the command of British explorer James Clark Ross. Another British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, first established a base nearby in 1902. The site, composed of volcanic rock, is the southernmost bare ground accessible by ship in the Antarctic. From the station, the Transarctic Mountains are clearly visible, as is Mt. Erebus, the southernmost known active volcano.
The United States officially opened its first station at McMurdo in 1956. McMurdo is a science station operated by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), a branch of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The USAP (usap.gov) supports scientific research in Antarctica in order to expand knowledge of the region and to foster research on global and regional problems of current scientific importance. McMurdo is also the jumping-off place for scientists bound for the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, located at the geographic South Pole 830 miles (1,336 kilometers) away.
McMurdo constitutes the largest community in Antarctica. In addition to scientific facilities and 10 dormitories, McMurdo’s more than 100 buildings house three bars, a chapel, a fitness center, a barbershop, a medical center, water, power, and sewer plants, a library, and the continent’s only ATM. More than 1,000 people live there during the southern hemisphere (austral) summer, from October through February, many of them scientists on their way to field camps farther inland. There are also hundreds of staffers who keep the town running, including cooks, plumbers, janitors, and fire techs. The population shrinks to fewer than 200 "winter-overs" who maintain the facility during the dark months of March through August.
Fire safety is a constant concern. Some of McMurdo’s buildings date from the 1950s and are constructed of wood — they were intended as temporary buildings, but have been modified to be permanent — and are situated close together, creating the risk of fire spreading, whipped by the relentless wind. All employees receive ongoing safety training; the trades have annual safety training sessions in Denver, Colorado, before deploying to Antarctica. At the station, all employees are required to attend weekly safety meetings, where fire prevention and extinguisher operation are often on the agenda. No open flame, including candles and incense, is permitted in any building, including the chapel. Collection boxes are available at the beginning of each season so that personnel can turn in any fire-related contraband. Smoking is permitted only in designated, ventilated metal buildings. A special permit is required for work such as welding.
McMurdo has several types of detection and suppression systems, both old and new. According to Mark Campbell, fire protection specialist with the USAP, the intent is not to have the newest technology at McMurdo. Because of its remote location, and the fact that there are more than 100 structures to protect, it is preferable to have the consistency and lower maintenance that come with what Campbell describes as "the tried and true." Minimal maintenance is essential, since supplies are normally delivered just once a year on the annual supply vessel. This means a two-year lead time for parts; batteries can be old by the time they arrive. In rare instances, critical parts are flown in from New Zealand.
For detection, all of the buildings have conventional smoke detectors. The power and water plants — the buildings most critical for human survival — are outfitted with somewhat more sophisticated systems. All structures have simple dry-pipe sprinkler systems; there are no wet systems because of the risk of freezing. Additional hazard-specific suppression is also provided in some of the buildings. The Crary Lab, a state-of-the-art research facility, and the vehicle maintenance facility have older-type halon systems, with plans to convert to the halon replacement FE-13 in the future. Essential computer and clean rooms are already equipped with FE-13 systems. In the power plant, a CO2 suppression system is installed over the generators.
There are two complete firehouses at McMurdo, one "in town" and another at the airfield. Both are as fully equipped as regular fire departments back home. Between the two stations there are 30 to 40 firefighters in the busy summer season, and around a dozen in winter. The 14 vehicles include three standard "structural" fire trucks, two ambulances, seven vehicles for fighting aircraft fires, and two utility vehicles. Three of the aircraft vehicles are sled-mounted, while the others are customized for travel on ice with tracks instead of tires.
Despite the fire risk, no fire injuries or deaths have been recorded at McMurdo. While there have been a few notable fires over the years (see "Fire Happens," page 59), most incidents are small. Vehicle fires occur every couple of years, and the most persistent problem is nuisance alarms — one or two a day — caused by popcorn machines, toasters, and employees accidentally bumping into alarm pull stations.
Compliance + reality
A team of four fire technicians staffs McMurdo in the summer season, with one or two during the winter, depending upon the projects that have to be completed. Fire techs in Antarctica have to be very versatile; they respond to alarms with the fire department, and they manage and service all of the station’s detection and suppression systems. Their motto is, "If you haven’t seen it before, learn it fast."
McMurdo fire techs have considerable and varied experience in the industry. They must have at least a Level 2 NICET (National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies) certification. They also have factory training and certification on various products, and in-house training for specific USAP equipment and procedures. Several of the techs have Level 4 certifications in multiple areas such as fire alarms, sprinklers, special hazards, and layout and design of sprinklers. In addition, they are involved in training station personnel in safety procedures, especially on job sites.
One of those fire techs is Wayne Overby. Overby calls Portland, Oregon, home, but he’s not there much. When not at McMurdo, he works as a fire tech for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor in the Marshall Islands. Certified at NICET Level 3, he has served four six-month seasons in Antarctica. I met Overby during the Antarctic summer season of 2008 – 9 when we were both working in Building 155. This is the central building for station personnel and includes a dormitory, a barber shop, a commercial kitchen, and a dining hall that serves 3,000 meals a day. I was a utility technician, and I spent a lot of time in a puddle that season, trying to repair a faulty hand washing sink outside the community dining hall. (Because of concern of preventing the spread of colds and flu, everyone is required to wash their hands before entering the dining room.) My job was to get the faucets to turn on when they sensed a hand and to turn off when they didn’t. Much of the time, they did the opposite.
As I fiddled with plumbing, Overby was busy trying to get to the bottom of a persistent problem with unwanted alarms in the Building 155 dormitory, which can house more than 280 people. At any time of day or night, the fire alarm would suddenly sound, and people would rise wearily out of bed to don their heavy boots, zip parkas over their bathrobes, and trudge once again out into the unwelcoming elements, where they grudgingly huddled in the cold and wind. The problem had been going on for longer than anyone could remember, and Overby had been working on it intermittently for two seasons. By his estimate, Building 155 experienced two to three unwanted alarms a week.
After weeks of troubleshooting, he finally had his breakthrough. "I noticed that the ground fault detection jumper was installed, but by pushing on the motherboard, we could make a ground fault appear on the panel," he says. Someone had apparently removed the ground reference from the back of the panel to make it appear as if detection were working when it was not — all it was producing was false alarms.
Overby replaced the motherboard and found multiple field ground faults within an hour or so.
"It would have been easier to fix the field problems than what they did to hide them," he says. "The important thing is that after all these years, the system caused no more false alarms in Building 155."
Not every unwanted alarm was the result of a ground fault. McMurdo personnel work six-day weeks, and sometimes there’s a need to let off steam. Overby recalls a pair of malicious alarms that occurred during holiday weekends. "Both were on the same dormitory pull station, within an hour of the bars closing," he says. "With the second alarm, on Christmas Eve, the guy left a note saying, ‘Merry Christmas.’ We had surveillance in place for a possible third occurrence. The perpetrator either got wise or was unable to go for the trifecta."
Nowhere is the techs’ "learn it fast" motto more appropriate than in the application of NFPA codes. Despite the presence of older technology, all systems must meet the most recent NFPA codes and standards. Campbell, the USAP fire protection specialist, works with the fire tech team to make sure that the applicable codes are met. "We apply rigid installation and design standards," he says. "When we can’t conform, the fire techs problem-solve with alternative methods or materials. Their job is to meet the intent of the code. My job then becomes creating the documentation to support the solutions they come up with."
In Antarctica, Overby says, there’s compliance, and then there’s reality. "NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, says that when we close a building for the winter, we have to remove detection devices so that the electronics are not subjected to temperatures outside the recommended 40°F to 120°F [4°C to 49°C] range. But we can’t realistically do that every season. So each year when we warm up a building, we go through it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure all of those systems work."
Even fundamental elements of the codes can be affected by the Antarctic cold. "It breaks down after a point," Overby says, referring to another provision of NFPA 72 regarding the placement height of detection devices. "We also service South Pole Station where it gets really cold. If the heat generated by a fire cools before it reaches the ceiling, it doesn’t matter how close your detection devices are."
McMurdo currently uses a radio transmitter system, subject to the provisions of NFPA 72, to interface all of the fire protection systems back to the firehouse. A plan has been developed to replace it with a new wireless system that is more robust and cheaper to maintain. "We want to begin at one side of the station and work our way through, removing and replacing the components so that by the end of season, they would have a brand new user interface," says Overby. For budget reasons, he says, this process will be carried out over several seasons, and both systems will have to remain operational throughout the transition. "We’ll have to do some fancy footwork," Overby says, "because the firehouse doesn’t have the floor space to accommodate both systems simultaneously."
In addition to NFPA 72, McMurdo staffers rely most heavily on NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. Other codes play key roles in keeping a range of McMurdo’s equipment in working order. Because the station’s communication system is mission-critical for survival and for relaying scientific data back to the United States, NFPA 75, Protection of Information Technology Equipment, and NFPA 76, Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities, are strictly applied. NFPA 10, Portable Fire Extinguishers, is also an important code for McMurdo. Select firefighters are trained and certified to maintain and repair fire extinguishers, although back home this is done by fire extinguisher companies. All McMurdo employees routinely participate in fire extinguisher training.
Fire extinguishers are uniquely important in the eight field camps, which are essentially tent villages accommodating roughly 50 people apiece that are erected for various research purposes during the austral summer. Some are located more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) into the Antarctic interior. There are no suppression systems in the field camps, and there may be no alternative shelter. Soon, several of these camps will have kitchen hood suppression systems, subject to NFPA 17A, Wet Chemical Extinguishing Systems, that will be set up at the beginning of each season, tested, and dismantled at the end.
‘A very good day for life safety’
An assortment of detection upgrades is planned for McMurdo. The old, conventional detection system is slated to be replaced station-wide with a modern analog system, where detectors function as data collectors for a central panel in each building. Sensing thresholds, such as dust levels that vary by time of day, will be programmed into the system to increase appropriate detection and reduce nuisance alarms. Overby is particularly excited by the testing function of the new system; instead of walking through a building to manually inject smoke into each detector, a tech will simply push a button on the building’s central panel to produce a printout of each detector’s sensitivity levels. "That should save a lot of trudging," Overby says.
He wasn’t exactly trudging back on December 2 when the alarm went out for the power plant fire, but no matter how fast Overby went, it seemed he couldn’t reach the plant quickly enough. Even as Overby and the other fire techs raced toward the fire, though, the plant’s protection systems were engaged. Because the power plant is critical to the station, it has five separate detection and suppression systems tied together through a sequence of operations. The detection systems include an air aspiration or sampling system, subject to NFPA 72, and a total building fire alarm system, which includes automated smoke and heat detection and manual pull stations. Suppression includes a CO2 suppression system and CO2 extended discharge to cool generator manifolds in case of fuel spillage, both subject to NFPA 12, CO2 Extinguishing Systems, and a double interlock pre-action sprinkler system subject to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems. Integrated into the total system is automated shut down of fuel and air circulation.
As bad as the power plant fire was, it could have been much worse. A computer automatically logs everything that happens to the integrated detection and suppression systems, along with the time of each event. The record from December 2 shows that the power plant operator on duty pulled the manual alarm one second before the automatic detection system did its job. About 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of CO2 were dumped on the blaze, which was extinguished in 30 seconds. Another 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of CO2 was automatically dribbled over the manifold for another four minutes to prevent re-ignition. Two minutes after being given the all clear, Overby and the other fire techs had the plant restored to operate on backup cylinders.
"We had just designed that system, and it all worked flawlessly," Overby says. "Everything could have gone very wrong, so we counted it as a win. It was a very good day for life safety."
Carol Fey is a technical trainer and writer with Carol Fey & Associates in Littleton, Colorado. She can be reached at www.carolfey.com.
Crary Lab: Antarctica’s Science Hub
McMurdo’s Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center is named in honor of geophysicist and glaciologist Albert P. Crary (1911–1987), the first person to set foot on both the North and South Poles. Known simply as Crary Lab, the building is the 46,500-square-foot (4,320-square-meter) science hub of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). It supports environmental monitoring, snow and ice mechanics, meteorology, geology, biology, geophysics, chemistry, and diving operations for more than 500 scientists a year.
Crary is unique, even for Antarctica. Dedicated in 1991, it was built at a cost of $23 million and contains millions of dollars of equipment, including high-tech instruments such as a mass spectrometer. The building is designed to withstand winds in excess of 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour and temperatures as low as -65°F (-54°C). Crary is situated on its site to align with the prevailing winds to minimize snow infiltration and drifting. The thick exterior doors slam and latch just like those of a commercial freezer. Inside, the lab contains work space, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and staging areas for a wide range of scientific disciplines.
In addition to a regular general building fire alarm system, Crary is protected by two different suppression systems: a pre-action sprinkler system, subject to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems, and a halon system in accordance with NFPA 12A, Halon 1301 Fire Extinguishing Systems. The sprinkler system is used in all areas of the building except where chemicals or electronics are stored. In areas containing chemicals or electronics, there is a halon non-water-based suppression system. Although halon is now recognized as an ozone-depleting agent, the system remains in place at McMurdo because it is effective, and it would be expensive and difficult to replace. The halon system will be removed when it can no longer meet testing requirements and will be replaced by a FE-13 clean agent system subject to NFPA 2001, Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems.
While I was a utility technician working in Crary, a fault was found in the building’s fire pressure tank, which meant that the building was without suppression. A welder could repair it, but there was no personal protective equipment (PPE) on site adequate for confined space entry. For the weeks before the PPE could be flown in from Christchurch, New Zealand, the building was on round-the-clock fire watch, which required that an employee constantly had to walk the halls, on alert for fire. We got through those anxious weeks without a fire in Crary, but I was enormously relieved that I wasn’t tapped for fire watch duty.
Even with the precautions, fires still manage to occur at McMurdo
Despite the fire risk, there have been no injuries or deaths recorded at McMurdo as a result of fire. Even so, there have been at least a few notable fires over the years, including the fire last December in the station’s power plant.
A vehicle maintenance facility known as the ‘heavy shop’ goes up in flames in 1981. (Photograph: Nick Majerus)
One dramatic fire occurred in December 1981, in the vehicle maintenance facility, known around McMurdo as the "heavy shop." Many buildings did not have plumbing back then, the heavy shop among them. An electric incinerating toilet had been installed and wired up and that night the building caught fire. "The fire department almost had the fire out, but then they ran out of water, so they let it burn," recalls Nick Majerus, a former McMurdo construction foreman. "It took a crew four or five days to cut apart and haul the remains up the hill and bury it." The building was a total loss, and the toilet was blamed for the blaze. A replacement building erected the following year is protected by four halon systems to address the hazard of stored flammable materials.
McMurdo’s Chapel of the Snows, the only known house of worship in Antarctica, has burned twice. Originally built in 1956, the building was destroyed by fire in 1978. The only articles rescued were the chapel bell, two stained glass windows, and various small religious items. A Quonset hut was remodeled to serve as the chapel, and by 1982, another Chapel of the Snows had been built close to the original site. That one burned in 1989 and was a total loss, the result of a faulty furnace. The chapel was again rebuilt. Only electric candles are allowed inside.