News

Quincy firefighter serves stint in Antarctica

Quincy firefighter Alan Munger poses with two fellow Raytheon Polar Services firefighters after digging out a building after a storm at the ice runway. (Submitted photo)
Posted: Jun. 16, 2012 6:52 pm Updated: Jun. 30, 2012 7:15 pm

By RODNEY HART

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Fighting a fire is hard enough. Try doing it when it's 80 below zero and the wind is blowing you backwards.

Quincy firefighter Alan Munger dealt with severe conditions and learned how to deal with the elements during a recent stint as a firefighter and paramedic on Ross Island in Antarctica. Munger, a lieutenant, took an unpaid sabbatical from the Quincy Fire Department and worked for Raytheon Polar Services at McMurdo Station. About 1,100 people are at the base, mostly American scientists and miliary support services personnel.

"Most of the time it was about 20 below zero," says Munger, 48, a 13-year veteran of the QFD. "It would get to about 80 below and the windchills would go to minus-118. That's when you really had to watch it."

Munger supervised a crew of about 13 and worked almost every day. They trained regularly and responded to medical and well-being calls, vehicle fires, assisted when large planes arrived and stayed busy.

"It was a good experience because it gave me supervision experience, plus I was in charge of fire prevention for the station," Munger said.

There were very few injuries reported and no firefighter injuries when Munger was in charge.

Antarctica has the harshest climate and most extreme weather in the world. Weather conditions changed rapidly, and if the wind started blowing snow in "hurrizards" -- hurricane and blizzard conditions -- everybody stayed inside.

Most of the McMurdo Station buildings are dorms, maintenance, supply and science facilities, but there were two bars and a coffee house with a movie theater. Later in his stay as Austrialian summer came, the temperatures could get to the high 30s. It was dark almost all day when Munger first arrived, but later it was daylight almost all the time.

Fighting fires in extreme cold requires special clothing and equipment. Munger said he didn't get cold when frequently going outside since much of the clothing was thermal and offered maximum protection while not being bulky.

To fight fires, a chemical called Purple K is used, not water, and it's expelled by nitrogen pressure. A foam concentrate is also used.

Munger helped during an incident in January that made international headlines. The Korean fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 caught fire in the Ross Sea, and several of the seriously burned crew were taken to McMurdo Station before being airlifted to New Zealand.

Munger started his stint in August of last year and got back to Quincy March 1. On off days, he'd hike around the island, watch the BBC newscasts, keep up with the world on the internet and enjoy the company of many interesting people -- Munger, an aspiring guitar player, says there were several bands and very talented musicians at the station. Munger also made the three-hour plane trip to visit the South Pole.

"The silence and clean air was amazing," he says. "You could reach up and touch the stars."

Munger says he'd go back in a heartbeat if he could.

-- rhart@whig.com/221-3370