Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Big Chill and the Big Drill...

Hey there,

well, last week it decided to get seriously cold. Last monday I walked to
work enveloped in a world that shivered at -71.5C. Toasty in all your
layers, skin at +30C, you are like a little bubble of hot in an icy
universe. You may as well be on the moon. It is a strange set of conditions
required for the temperatures to get that cold. It must be completely free
of cloud and utterly devoid of wind. Counterintuitively, even a breath of
wind and the air temperature warms up. Cloud is like turning on a space
heater and the temperatures rocket up by at least 10 degrees. This is really
just an extension of what happens elsewhere, it is just simply that here, as
usual, it happens to a much greater extreme.

So all of last week we had still, clear conditions and the temperature
skulked like a theif in the deep -60s to -70C for the entire time. This is
actually glorious weather to be outside. When hustling and bustling around,
or walking, it is actually pleasant without any wind, and you can get quite
toasty. Standing still or handling things (especially metal) and this
benefit quickly goes away, however. My hands turned into solid (and painful)
blocks of wood on a couple of cryo fills. But nothing strips away your
warmth like the icy, heartstopping winds that stream down from the high
domes of the plateau, and any day without these is always a pleasant one. In
such cold, and stillness, we always get an increase in physiological
altitude. (I will talk in feet, not metres for a moment, my apologies).
South Pole is at a physical altitude of around 9000 feet. However, the
extreme cold causes the air to be even more rarified and last week we stood
at an effective altitude of 11500ft! People tell me you can tell the
difference, but to me it all just feels the same - "high". Six months in and
we are all as adjusted as we are going to get to the rare air. Stairs and
exertion still leave you gasping for air, heart thudding, but otherwise it
is not as noticable. Many people have trouble sleeping, a combination of the
lower oxygen levels and the lack of a diurnal cycle, but this has not been a
problem for me, for which I am grateful.

We had a series of fire and trauma team exercises last week and completing
today (Monday). Usually each team has at least one meeting, drill or
training session a month and it is something taken quite seriously down
here. There are three emergency response fire teams - first responders, a
second team that arrives in full bunker gear with SCBA - breathing apparatus
gear, and a third that acts as support for the first two. I am a triage
member of the trauma team which has about twenty members. South Pole is dry
and the Station is primarily made of wood and other flammable materials and
fire is always the main fear. In the event of a serious one, the fire team
can use hoses for perhaps only twenty minutes before our initial water
supply runs out, so they need to be good at it, otherwise we are pretty well
stuffed. With 'outlying, nonessential' buildings, like the ones in the dark
sector housing millions of dollars worth of instrumentation, provided all
personnel are safe, there is a 'let it burn' policy. We simply do not have
the resources, especially in winter, to save a building of this type if it
has a large fire in it.

The exercises (which differ from drills only in that occasionally the
'observers' will stop the process to instruct or suggest something) have
involved 'emergencies' in the New Power Plant and Emergency Power Plant. The
station runs on the alternating supplies from three large generators, and an
additional, peaking generator that turns on when demand is high. A fire in
this area would be very dangerous - the area has a carbon dioxide emission
system to turn on in the event of such a fire. I usually find these drills
very useful - a trauma drill earlier this month involved extracting an
unconscious patient with a possible spinal injury from a messy construction
site - and drills are also more pleasant than the real thing as the patient
then gets up, Lazarus-like, from the operating table and tells you what you
all did wrong.

(Now it's Wednesday)

Well, blood draws and drills went very well this week. As expected our drill
was in the emergency power plant - fortunate because it inside the new
station and therefore much warmer than the ordinary power plant which is in
the tunnels and pretty cold.

The following is all *pretend* so don't get worried at any point...

The situation: There had been a broken hose which sprayed fuel on the power
plant mechanic, Chris, and vapourised fuel had spontaneously combusted. The
CO2 systems were activated - this makes it very dangerous to be anywhere in
the plant. So we all "rushed" down to stage for casualties while the fire
teams went in and put out the 'fire' and rescued Chris. When he was dragged
out to us (by this stage in an oxygen-free environment for 15 minutes so not
doing to good) I was impressed. He and the Doc could both get jobs as
hollywood make-up artists. Gruesome burns covered his right arm and face,
which also had a great gash on it. His lips were a worrying blue.

Larry and I were on triage and went through the motions of CPR - including,
when it was evident he didn't have a heartbeat, using a portable
diffibrilator. In most of our drills we have a 'practice' diffibrilator
pack, that doesn't actually give out electricity but lets us turn it on and
go through the motions. We were assuming the one we had was like this and
turned it on. The Doc, Christian, an observer, rushed forward and said "Ah,
don't do that." It was a real diffibrilator, and we nearly gave Chris a
genuine shock - not much appreciated by someone who already has a perfectly
useful heartbeat!

We supposedly got him a heartbeat, so we then got him on a backboard and up
to medical, where later we were informed that they 'lost him'! Oh well. The
drill/exercise was declared a success, and was much fun.

Yesterday, Robert and I took turns stabbing each other with needles in
medical, learning how to take blood. This was very fun, and I will have
photos of both the fake blood (the drill) and the real blood (Robert's and
mine) on my website soon - not for the squeamish, or needle-phobes, though.

Okies, well that's about it for now,

hope you are all enjoying yourselves in the warmth,

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