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November 9, 2019 - Preparing For Pole

As I finish this post in the San Francisco airport on my way south, the reality of the coming year is starting to sink in. While I am very comfortable working in places away from home, wintering at south pole is a level of isolation seldom experienced in today's modern world. I recently realized that after the last plane leaves the South Pole at the end of the summer season, I won't interact with a stranger for 9 months. It is hard to wrap my mind around what it will be like to be somewhere for that long entirely devoid of all those little encounters with new people that keeps you on your toes.. But that's still three months away, and there is a lot going on between now and then. One thing at a time.

Aside from resting up at home, I went to training and team building with my winterover crew in Colorado! It was an awesome two weeks and I got to meet a majority of the great people I'll be working with for the next year. The training was great - I got a crash course in firefighting from Aurora Fire & Rescue! There are generally two groups going through training: the fire team and the first response team. We got our choice of team, and I took the obvious option of joining the fire team. Who wouldn't want to suit up and practice running into burn buildings?

All joking aside, fire is perhaps the most dangerous hazard at the south pole. The polar environment is incredibly dry, despite the enormous amount of water stored in the ice. Humidity is always low, and it almost never snows. The buildings are made of wood, and if a fire were to take hold, our shelter from the cold might go up in smoke. Of course, the station is very isolated and the crew is small. Rescue is time consuming and risky in the winter. We need to be prepared to handle fires on our own, so every year a group of winterovers are sent for firefighting training before their deployment. The instruction was focused on the unique situation at the south pole and we only had a week, so what we are taught doesn't include nearly as much as a firefighter in the US would be need to learn.

The week of training was excellent. The first few days we were introduced to our equipment and provided instruction on firefighting tactics, fire behavior, and search and rescue. We practiced moving with our equipment through a maze, containing various obstacles and constrictions designed to get your mind used to the shape and bulk of the gear and understand what is possible to move through while wearing it. Our first experience being in a room with live fire came on day 2. The training facility is complete with a class A and a class B burn building. Class A fires are typical solid combustibles such as wood. Class B includes flammable liquids and gases. A room was set up in the A building with a few wood pallets and a bale of hay. We shuffled inside and observed the fire develop. It definitely gave us an appreciation of how far the protective equipment can go, and what to watch out for. The third day we practiced fire extinguisher use, and got a second shot at the class A live fire. The final two days we learned practices for locating and rescuing firefighters in distress, and conducted live exercises with their class B building. This building was very cool, they had a remote control that would trigger propane fire props to go off. The propane doesn't create much smoke, so they also use theatrical smoke to add to the realism of the scenario. At the end of the day on Friday: certificates and cake!

We followed that up with a free weekend in the mountains and three days of team building with the full group, both trauma team and fire team. Our lodging was located at the YMCA of the Rockies, which is a beautiful place, all the way up at 8000 feet above see level. Right next to the Rocky Mountain National Park. I was able to squeeze a good trail run in the park before the weather brought in nearly constant snow for the rest of our trip. Some highlights from the week include a cardboard boat building competition (which we actually climbed aboard and raced in the pool) and a geo-challenge. It was good fun and great to get to know my fellow winterovers. A wonderful group of people that I'm humbled to be a part of.