Fire Fighting Based On Cold Facts in Barrow, Alaska

Fire Fighting Based On Cold Facts in Barrow, Alaska


Fire chiefs in every state have at times felt that their own resources were insufficient to cope with major emergencies in their communities. For this reason, they enter into mutual aid agreements with surrounding departments—even those departments that are 25 miles away. But things are different in Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost town on the North American continent. Except for a small, six-person fire department at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, mutual aid is nonexistent. This means that the department must be totally self-reliant.

The weather conditions at Barrow are strongly influenced by the Arctic Ocean to the north and treeless, flat tundra in all other directions. With nothing to break the wind, the chill factor coupled with low temperatures creates a very difficult environment in which to work. Nevertheless, with a year-round population of 3100, Barrow is a thriving community. The normal temperature range in the winter is —20 to —30°F, while during the summer the temperature might reach a balmy 70°F. But it seldom gets above 40 or 45°F.

As Chief Tom Opie says, “There are many days when the temperature gets down below —50°F and there is a 15 to 20-mph wind. This brings the chill factor down to about —110°F. Remember that when the equivalent temperature gets down this low, exposed flesh will freeze in 30 seconds. Our normal -20°F in winter makes us feel like a +60° day would during winter in the lower 49 states. We have no problem fighting fire at —20° F. It is when it gets down below —40°F with a wind that a few of my men start crying.”

During most of the year the ice pack in the Arctic Ocean stays close to the shore line. As it moves back and forth, tremendous forces create huge ice sculptures, which pile up on the shore line. Snow and ice during the cold weather months make travel within the community very difficult. Heavy ground fog can continue for several days, cutting off air travel, the only link to the outside world.

All-volunteer department

The Barrow Volunteer Fire Department is made up entirely of volunteers under the command of Chief Tom Opie. There are over 25 active volunteers in the department who receive notification of calls through radio alert equipment. One advantage in being so isolated is that most of the volunteers are available to respond because they work locally. The major disadvantages faced by the fire fighters involve the weather.

Turnout clothing is just not made to withstand and protect individuals in the common —20 to —40°F temperature experienced during most of the winter. Even with heavy liners and insulating undergarments, the fire fighter gets chilled. As a result, bulky clothing is a requirement that makes it very difficult to maneuver.

Standard protective gloves are out of the question. Keeping the fingers separated in the chilling cold is not a good idea. Instead, mittens are used so that the fingers can tend to warm each other. However, this causes a reduction in the dexterity needed to use tools and appliances.

Foot protection presents another severe problem. The ordinary 3/4 rubber boots or the leather work boots do not offer enough protection from the cold. So, the volunteers of Barrow utilize cold weather gear which they adapted to the fire service.

Then there is breathing apparatus, which we in the other 49 states take for granted. How quickly does a regulator freeze shut? (Very quickly.) How do you thaw it out that the unit can be used again at the same fire? (Hold it next to the apparatus exhaust.) What happens when the warm air in the bottle (kept at the fire station) hits the cold inside portion of the facepiece? (Ice forms on the inside of the facepiece, thus reducing vision.) What happens to the exhalation valves? (They quickly freeze shut.)

Getting from home or work to the fire station when there is a call is a problem that most volunteer fire departments face. Whether it is heavy traffic in an urban area or occasional weather difficulties (fog, snow or rain), the problems are usually only temporary in nature. Barrow volunteers, on the other hand, face extremely heavy ground fogs which reduce visibility to below 10 feet. The extreme cold makes starting vehicles almost impossible. (Private vehicles are not kept in garages.) Roads coated with ice make driving treacherous, so response is by foot or by snow machine.

All-weather tanker of the Barrow, Alaska, Volunteer Fire Department has cleat-tracks to ensure response over ice and snow. Getting out of the cab is Chief Tom Opie of the 25-man department.Pump mounted on rear of tanker is powered by its own engine. Both 1 1/2 and 2 1/2-inch preconnected lines are carried on unit.

In addition to providing fire protection, the Barrow volunteers also provide emergency medical services. The Town of Barrow has the only hospital within many hundreds of square miles. So, in addition to providing services to the local citizens, they must meet medicevac planes coming from the smaller communities and get the sick and injured to the hospital. To do all of this, the volunteers have a well-equipped ambulance.

Tracked tanker supplies water

The Barrow Volunteer Fire Department operates a standard 1500-gpm pumper, with a 1000-gallon booster tank, and 4-wheel drive as well as a 1500-gallon tanker-pumper combination. With the problem of movement over the icy roads, a tanker with tracks instead of wheels insures that some water supply will get to the incident.

One of the greatest problems of Barrow is water. When thinking of Alaska, most people picture vast quantities of ice, but it is unfortunate that the ice does not translate into available water. Water is a very expensive commodity, costing about 15 cents per gallon delivered to your home or to the fire station. (Think about the cost of filling your 1500-gallon tanker.) Water used for fire fighting is donated by the private water utility, but that used in drills must be purchased. Next time you have a drill, think about the steps you would take to reduce the amount of wasted water and thus the cost.

Water is brought by tank truck to each house because a piped system cannot be installed. The ground stays so permanently frozen that a belowground installation is not possible. During the below freezing weather, aboveground pipes would have to be insulated to keep the water moving. The cost of such a system at this time makes it impractical to install. Therefore, there is no hydrant system—all water is brought to the fireground with tankers.

It is interesting to note that the equipment has been specially modified to prevent the water from freezing inside the pump even during the severest weather. However, once water begins to flow, lines are never completely shut down.

Commodities a problem

One thing that there is an abundance of in the Barrow area is natural gas. Natural gas wells on the outside of town provide for the citizens’ needs. However, these pipes also cannot be placed in the ground. They are therefore run aboveground and at intersections they cross by making a high arch.

With this setup some difficulty arises when the pipes are struck by vehicles (mainly snow machines) and the gas begins to leak. Shutoff valves are located at crossroads to limit the flow of gas. However, because of the large quantities necessary, the mains are large and operated under high pressure. A break in the lines creates a very serious hazard.

Because of its geography, Barrow can only be reached by air, or in the summer months by sea. Every commodity therefore must be brought into town by barge or airplane. Such items as gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel are brought in in tanks and drums. Corrosives, oxidizers, compressed gases, flammable gases, and poisons come into the freight facility, are transported across town, and then stored for use. The water treatment plant, the hospital and the airport are all areas that require hazardous materials storage. And the cold weather dictates that these materials be kept inside. This really can compound problems. Leaks cannot be dissipated by using fog streams. The volatiles and chemicals also act differently under such extreme cold conditions which make the many reference texts next to useless.

Well-equipped ambulance is operated by Barrow volunteer fire fighters, who meet planes to transfer patients to local hospital.

Assistance from the outside, as mentioned above, is almost nonexistent. The only other fire service available is from the small force at the Naval Arctic Research Center. Once these resources are exhausted, no other help can be expected. As a result, the fire fighters of Barrow have become very innovative and self-sufficient. Either they do the job or the town suffers.

Miles to training schools

Because Barrow is so far removed from a major population center, the majority of the fire training is conducted by the department officers. They, in turn, receive much of their training by traveling to other areas of the state for specialized classes. Under the direction of William Hagevig, the head of the state-wide fire service training programs, classes are conducted in regional classes, as well as in the local fire stations. In order to attend the regional classes, personnel from Barrow must fly to Fairbanks (400 miles) or Anchorage (800 miles) to participate. These classes include training in tactics, administration, pumps and hydraulics, specifications preparation, handling hazardous materials incidents, and fire prevention education.

For the basic skills level training, an instructor is sent to Barrow to conduct the class for the entire department. Topics covered include breathing apparatus, hose layouts, water application, use of tools and equipment, and pump operation. These classes generally last several days.

Since the Barrow volunteers also provide ambulance service, training as emergency medical technicians became necessary. To accomplish this the students were sent to the class location for several weeks in order to receive their state certification. Now, there are more than 20 of the volunteers who can proudly say they are EMTs.

Even though isolated from other fire departments, the fire fighters of Barrow have overcome the obstacles of costs and available time to receive training. Next time a program is offered close to your locality, take advantage of it. Think about these individuals who travel many hundreds of miles to improve their fire fighting capabilities.

Applying the skills

An example of the type of problems faced by the Barrow Fire Department was the fire in the Top-of-the-World Hotel. This hotel, overlooking the Arctic Ocean, was an old wood frame structure. The fire began in the early evening hours with the outside temperature hovering around — 30°F with 20-mph wind, bringing the chill factor down to —80°F. The basic problems faced by the fire fighters were lack of available water, wooden exposures very close to the original fire, ice on the ground and, of course, the weather conditions.

Because water supply was such a problem, mutual aid was requested from the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, which sent its 1500-gallon tanker. With a total available water supply of about 4000 gallons, Chief Opie determined that the best use would be made of the water by protecting the exposures. For, if the fire spread beyond the building of origin, the whole community would be threatened. Using the water sparingly, and only on exposures, the fight was won. There was no damage outside of the original building and the community of Barrow was saved by a very dedicated group of volunteer fire fighters.

The next time you are out on the fireground and feel a little uncomfortable, think about the many obstacles that the Barrow Volunteer Fire Department has to overcome. Extreme cold weather and lack of water are accepted and handled in a routine manner.

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