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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mass Casualty at the South Pole

No worries, it was just a drill.  No one was hurt.  One of several training exercises that we go through  to get ready for winter. 

Our five professional firefighters are on the ground on the skiway after the simulated airplane explosion.  This was a drill and there was no actual plane.  The plane and the fire were represented by cones.

It was our fourth drill of the season, this one staged on the skiway.  The scenario was that of an airplane calling the station 10 minutes prior to landing with a fire on board.  Our team of professional firefighter went to the skiway to extinguish the fire as the plane landed, but while working the fire the plane exploded and they all fell unconscious to the ground.  At that point our emergency response sprang into action.  The professional firefighters, five of them, are on station only for the summer.  Their primary tasks are to provide fire protection for air operation and to train the fire brigade for the winter.  We have four emergency response teams: 1) the first responders go to the scene of an emergency first, determine the nature of the emergency, and communicate with a command post on station what resources are needed; 2) the fire brigade is responsible for fire fighting; 3) the medical team is responsible for initial patient assessment and safe transportation to the clinic; and 4) the logistic team is responsible for supplying transportation and supplies to the other teams, such as spare batteries for the radios, air cylinders for the firefighters, fans for ventilation, additional fire extinguishers, etc.  While the first responders are on the scene, the other three teams move rapidly into their gear to get ready to move into action.  So, back to our scenario, the exercise was for the emergency response teams to go rescue the firefighters.  This was actually a fairly complex tasks, because we had to coordinate a team of about 40 people, provide transportation for them and for the victims to and from the scene, which was about a half mile from the station, rescue the victims from a fire without getting injured, assessing priorities so as to who gets treatment first, and transporting everyone back to the station.  All this in -15F (-26 C) temperatures.  We had been training on how to respond to emergencies on the ice, how to cope with icing of our face masks, how to drag unconscious people lying on the ice to a safe location. 
These drills are monitored by observers who take photos and then debrief us to point out areas for improvement.  The photos shown here were taken by the observers.
Most everything went well.  We were on the scene to assist the first victim within 14 minutes after the alarm and everyone was taken back to the station within 24 minutes.  This is a very fast response, considering our level of training and the environmental conditions at the South Pole.  Of course, it was a sunny and warm day in the middle of summer.  Things would be a lot harder in the darkness and cold of winter.

Members of the fire brigade, in full bunker gear and breathing air from a tank, are dragging the victims out of the fire zone, while the logistic team provided transportation on snowmobile, sleds, and Pisten Bullys.

The first victim, properly immobilized on a stretcher, arrives in the clinic, where our doctor administers the appropriate care.
In this photo, taken in the hall of the station about a month ago during a simulated fire in one of the lounges, I am walking out of the fire scene in full bunker gear, after extinguishing the fire, to have my air bottle replaced by the logistics team and get ready to go back into the scene.  In this simulation we also had two unconscious victims to drag out of the lounge and deliver to the medical team.  This simulation was quite realistic, as the entire lounge was smoked so that it was impossible to see, and we had to crawl on the floor to search for the victims.  Working in full bunker gear is very tiring.  Not only does it get very warm inside all the insulating layers of fireproof clothing; the gear is also quite heavy (I weighted mine at 48 pounds, or 22 kg.).  Add to that any additional equipment that, depending on the circumstances, we have to hand carry (a fire extinguisher, a crowbar, etc), and it becomes quite a workout.  We have had numerous false alarms already and we hope that all of what we will have to deal with will be drills and false alarms.  All in all these are very good skills to have and I am happy to be given the opportunity to learn something new and practical.

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