On Saturday night around 7pm, just as people were settling down to their beers and cocktails, finishing dinner and showering to get ready for the summer camp dance party, a fire alarm went off. Now, fire alarms are not something we are unaccustomed to here at South Pole Station. We hold many drills and have many, many false alarms, all of which are treated as a real emergency until proved otherwise, but this was definitely not a drill, and the more we heard, the more we realized it was a genuine emergency.
“Attention South Pole Station,” said the breathless, shaky voice of the comms announcer, “a fire emergency has been reported in the power plant.” Alarms were blaring. The fire response team was suiting up in firefighting gear, donning boots and overalls and jackets and helmets and facemasks and SCBAs (self contained breathing apparatuses). First responders were already running down the stairs to the power plant arch, the trauma team was mustering in Medical, and the logistics team grouped to wait for the next instructions.
Our power plant has a carbon dioxide fire suppression system. A few seconds after the alarm goes off, the enclosed space of the plant can flood with carbon dioxide, displacing oxygen and suffocating the fire but also anyone in the plant, potentially killing them. Even a false alarm could claim a real victim. The power plant mechanic, Rick, was eating dinner in the galley between rounds, so we knew he was okay, but a utilities tech or another power plant worker (there are three—they make rounds reading levels in the plant every 2 hours, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) could be in danger.
Those of us not on a response team sat in the galley, nervously huddled around our land mobile radios listening to the talk-around channel, hearing smoke reported first in the plant between generators three and four, then widespread. We heard the fire team yelling their next moves (they have to yell because of the facemasks), going in, checking for victims, reporting a massive glycol spill.
Comms all-called again. “Attention South Pole. We are in a power emergency. Please turn off ALL electronics not required for life and safety.”
We needed to get our power consumption down, right now. Everyone got up, trotting the halls, turning off lights and unplugging treadmills, shutting down computers and televisions and any other thing we could find a plug or switch for. The galley turned off all the stoves and refrigerators, the IT staff remotely shut down all the auxiliary servers and all of the labs. The air was quiet.
There had been a massive glycol spill as a result of a mechanical failure (a small elbow joint that had reached the end of its life). The power usage shot up to extreme levels, the peaking generator was activated, and our power plant was flooded with propylene glycol, but not carbon dioxide. The whole area was dark and hazy, like a scene from a movie where something really bad is about to happen to the protagonist. We tracked down empty open-top 55 gallon drums, absorbent pads, and every mop and mop bucket on station. An hour or two later, once the air had been ventilated and the flammable liquids and gasses had been contained and dissipated, the clearance was given and additional volunteers were called for. We suited up with earplugs and disposable latex gloves to protect ourselves from the glycol, and moved around the power plant on absorbent pads, soaking up the extremely slippery chemical on our hands and knees while someone else followed behind with a mop.
One of the best parts of living here is the active community—our emergency response team is made up of firefighters and emergency responders, of network guys and cargo women and dishwashers and mechanics and doctors and station management, all working together, and the non ERT folk were from the same mixed bag. We cleaned glycol from the floor, under nooks and crannies and fuel return pipes, from storage shelving and water tanks and generator parts, and it was awesome to see the whole station working together.
And then it was over, aside from lingering power restrictions. It was close to eleven when everything had calmed down and less than ten people remained in the plant, cleaning up loose ends and trying to determine exactly what happened. The emergency power plant did not need to be activated, and no one was hurt, not even from slipping on the glycol and falling.
And that was Saturday night at the South Pole. Sunday now leaves us happy and safe, full of brunch and coffee and sitting in rooms lit only by the 24-hour sun.