By Trish MunteanMarch 11, 2010
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - ItAca,!a,,cs been a long difficult day and youAca,!a,,cre looking forward to a hot meal and an early bedtime.
You have been outside for most of the day, in temperatures of 40 below helping Soldiers and their families in their worst hours. You finally start to thaw out when an all too familiar tone sounds and you wait to hear if you get to eat your warm dinner or have to go out, again.
Such is the life of a Fort Wainwright firefighter.
Firefighters at Fort Wainwright work shifts of 48 hours on, 72 hours off and every other weekend. While there is no Aca,!A"typicalAca,!A? shift in the winter, they can expect to respond to a variety of incidents, said Charles Gibbs, deputy chief. These will include medical calls for everything from picking up someone who has fallen on the ice to a man who developed chest pains after clearing a sidewalk.
Firefighters frequently respond to motor vehicle accidents which are often the result of a Soldier or family member driving too fast for conditions or simply not knowing how to negotiate the roads in Alaska, which are covered by snow and ice for months on end. Gibbs said that about half of the calls the Fort Wainwright Fire Department responds to during the winter months are outside the gate and usually involve Aca,!A"hands onAca,!A? firefighting jobs assisting other fire departments with actual working fires.
If you sit down and talk with firefighters, they will share stories about the challenges of firefighting in cold weather. Any firefighter who has been around long enough to remember the fire at the power plant on Fort Wainwright will probably tell you that is their most memorable incident.
Aca,!A"Having the power plant go down is probably the biggest fear for this installation. If the power plant goes down, everything stops. There would be no electricity, there would be no steam and no heatAca,!A? Gibbs said.
The fire happened late on a Friday afternoon in February 2006.
Fire department dispatchers remember that the initial call was reporting an explosion with injuries. The fire started in the elevator of the crusher house, a system that carries the coal on conveyers from the bottom floor to the top, where it gets dumped into hoppers for the boiler system.
Because of the force of the explosion and the fireball that came with it, all of the coal dust that had settled into the cracks and crevices in the elevator building, around the catwalk and over into the main power plant caught fire.
When the firefighters arrived they found frozen hydrants and icy roads. Hoses had to be dragged up six flights of stairs to get to the top. The fire was then fought from the top level down. Gibbs said it was very chaotic. There were concerns about water getting into electronic equipment, making the effort to put the fire out even trickier.
Making the situation even more difficult was the fact that radios cannot be used in the power plant because the frequency they operate on could shut down the turbines. So runners were used to go from one crew to the other onsite , come down and then relay the information to the command.
All fire department personnel were recalled to duty for the power plant fire. Firefighter Andy Harkness was one of the firefighters recalled to duty that night. He said that every fire department in the borough had personnel on scene. Firefighter and paramedic Gordon Hill remembers that it was so cold that frozen hydrants were not the only equipment problem, a ladder truck froze with the ladder extended.
Gibbs says it took about three days to find and extinguish all the hot spots.
Although Fort Wainwright Fire DepartmentAca,!a,,cs primary mission is to cover incidents on post, it is not uncommon for the Fort Wainwright Fire Department to be asked to assist with incidents outside the gate.
Capt. Kevin Harvey remembers a North Star Fire Department cabin fire where Fort Wainwright assisted.
It was minus-46 degress. All the occupants were out, and when firefighters arrived it looked like it was going to be simple to extinguish.
When they entered the first time, they got blown back out the door. When they did get in, they tried to get control of the fire by doing everything that came to mind and although they cut holes in the walls, sprayed water and took the roof off, it still burned.
They called for more manpower and sprayed about 40,000 gallons of water on the cabin, but still it burned. After many hours and firefighters suffering exposure, the decision was made to let the structure burn. Investigation later found out that the fuel line that had been feeding the furnace had a cracked fitting on the return line which probably been leaking under the house and around the foundation for years and that was feeding the fire.
Fighting a fire is always hard work, but Aca,!A"fighting one in cold temperatures has a huge impact on firefighters and how they do their jobs,Aca,!A? Gibbs said. Aca,!A"At zero, firefighters are able to do their duties at pretty much a normal pace. At zero when you take a breath, your lungs arenAca,!a,,ct filling up with as cold of air. It doesnAca,!a,,ct hurt. Your eyelids arenAca,!a,,ct freezing. At 40 below, you get sprayed with water, it freezes instantly."
"You walk outside or stop what youAca,!a,,cre doing, it freezes instantly," he added. "At 40 below, youAca,!a,,cre a lot more likely to get frostbite. At zero you still have a lot of dexterity in your fingers and your toes, you can move and the bunker clothing that you are wearing is not frozen, like at 40 below or colder; as soon as you get water on something it is going to freeze. It slows things down. We can still perform the duties and the jobs; itAca,!a,,cs just going to take us a little bit longer to do it.Aca,!A?
While not all injuries can be prevented, Harvey said crews take extra precautions during winter months and that some of the protective gear is specialized to Alaskan firefighters.
"The bunker gear is not specifically made for cold weather," he noted, "so we have to have some of it modified by adding in to our specifications extra liners; thicker, longer protective hoods; different compounds of rubber and silicone in our SCBA masks that do not collect moisture so our air masks don't freeze up. We carry more pairs of gloves, hoods, socks and t-shirts because once the material gets wet the firefighter is prone to exposure issues faster than if they were dry."
"Exposure," he stressed, "is very real and it can become a career-ending injury.Aca,!A?
Slips and falls are common with water left running constantly so hose lines wonAca,!a,,ct freeze. Firefighters are issued cleats for boots and encouraged to use them. Some crews carry kitty litter to spread around near the truck. Snow around buildings makes mobility difficult and steam rising around a burning building makes it difficult to see.
Equipment problems are common and expected. Dennis Needham, chief of training, said Aca,!A"firefighting equipment can freeze during cold weather. Caps on hydrants can be difficult or impossible to remove, pumps can freeze and become damaged and air packs can freeze and stop functioning. Basically if it is mechanical it has the potential of failing during extreme cold temperatures.Aca,!A?
Fighting fires and rescuing those in need is a difficult and heroic task even when the climate is ideal. But for the brave individual who accepts the challenge in the frozen north, the profession is extreme.
Still, Capt. Wayne Parker Jr. enjoys what he does. Aca,!A"Love the challenge, the uniqueness of firefighting in Alaska; itAca,!a,,cs something different and new. We get a chance to do something nobody else gets to do.Aca,!A?