Extreme plumbing in Antarctica, important search and rescue training and some short-lived outdoor fun at Casey this week.

The pipeline

The trades group has been busy with repairs to the station sewage outfall line over the past week.  Casey has a sewage treatment plant, much like any town, only on a smaller scale.  It is a very important part of our station environmental management that all wastes, human or otherwise, are properly treated on site and/or returned to Australia for appropriate treatment and disposal. Several days ago, we found that the outfall pipe was icing up and being blocked. A good pointer to there being a problem was the electric heat trace somewhere in the line.  Down here the weather is so cold that the sewage pipe needs to be kept constantly warm so that sewage flows and doesn’t just freeze and block the pipes.  This is achieved by a current being generated through electrical wire running along the side of each pipe, under the insulation. If there is a break of some sort in the wire then the current doesn’t flow, the pipe cools and everything freezes solid.  Not a good place to be. Fortunately for us the problem was in the part of the system that deals with treated wastes. It could have been much worse.

So after some days work the heat trace failure was traced back to a junction between the treatment plant and the outfall point, about 100 metres from the end.  Of course the break was in a tricky spot (junction in a curved piece of pipe) that itself was buried under about a metre of snow over a metre of solid ice. A whole new piece of pipe with trace needed to be fitted, involving both plumbers (Jamie and Rob) and both electricians (Phill and Jeb) but firstly with heavy plant and chainsaws the ice and snow needed to be cleared to get to the pipe. Enter Misty and Jon, the station plant operators. After a considerable amount of work the ice and snow was cleared (including plenty of time by the team on the end of snow shovels). Then we had a blizzard for about four days and the hole filled up again.  Such are the challenges of working in Antarctica.

So the pipe was dug out again. But basically, once the pipe is cut, the new pipe needs to be inserted, heat trace wired up and insulation put in place all in one day. Of course daylight at Casey at the moment officially lasts for less than five and a half hours so the whole exercise needs additional lighting, careful timing and everything prepared in advance. By the way, did I say it was also cold?  

Anyway, in the end the pipe was fixed. And whilst it is easy to focus on the difficulties of the job, all of us are aware that if we had needed to do the job in a month’s time, it would have been a lot colder and a lot darker. So it’s good to have it out of the way and know that the system is in top working condition for the remainder of the winter.

Jamie Lowe, Building Services Supervisor and Plumber

SAR training

For the majority of the expeditioners here at Casey Station this winter, Antarctica is an entirely different world to what we have ever experienced. Arguably the most isolated and remote place we are ever likely to be, certainly the coldest and driest place on the planet and by definition “a desert”.  Living and working in such a remote area as this presents a varied array of unique challenges, none more so than being a member of the Search and Rescue team (SAR).

This season we have combined the Fire and SAR teams into two separate Emergency Response Teams, with each team having the capacity to fill both roles. This allowed for a week on week off roster, freeing up some of our valued personal time to enjoy the finer things Antarctica has to offer.

In order for us to be able to travel around the continent, we always know in the back of our minds that we have a skilled and trained search and rescue team at our backs. We still have to be very careful and follow all the procedures but it does mean we have confidence that if something does go wrong, we aren’t on our own.  The field training officers had a momentous task over the summer to provide the training. Given their audience, the plumbers, diesel fitters, electricians, chef, carpenter, comms techs and BOM personnel,  they had their work cut out for them.

All SAR team members are put through a rigorous training regime covering many new skills and techniques such as cliff and ice rescue, patient handling and emergency management. These skills can vary considerably to everyday requirements used back at home, so regular training sessions form part of work routines where possible. An exceptional job was done by the FTO team. At the end of the training, members were slotted into positions within the SAR team that provided the station with the best possible chance of completing a SAR with a successful outcome.

The team is broken into a number of different roles including SAR leader, first responders and second responders. The SAR leader is responsible to the station leader for the continuation of training and the on ground coordination of any SAR incident. The first responders have the task of being the first to react in the initial stages, required to brave the inclement weather, locate, assess and report on the situation in the field and apply first aid. To do this the first responders would normally head out on faster, more nimble vehicles like quad bikes or skidoos. The second response team is responsible for providing ongoing rescue or equipment, establishing a field base, provide ongoing search capability and technical rescue backup. Depending on the situation at hand, the second response team may also include the doctor. The second response team would normally proceed in the SAR Hagg (Hägglunds), an all terrain tracked vehicle set up for patient transport and able to be used as a field base for technical rescue.

In order to maintain our skills in SAR, fire fighting and other roles not necessarily related to our primary jobs on station, it is paramount that we conduct regular training.  We dedicate every second Wednesday afternoon to such activities and this week the station’s additional training was dedicated to SAR.

The first responders were tasked with setting up an abseiling line and carrying out some prussiking (climbing back up the rope). All remembered their basic knot tying techniques and completed the training with great success. The second responders went through the equipment and layout of setting up a main line and belay line for a vertical rescue. This is a complex and difficult scenario in the best of conditions. It too was successful.

We all look forward with great enthusiasm for the next round of training with the fervent hope that we will never have to put it into use.

Jason Blackwell, Mechanical Services Supervisor and SAR Leader

The great outdoors

Sunday, a day off, the end of the week, time to sleep in, have a late breakfast, be lazy, recuperate, ready to start a new working week the following day. Right? Not at Casey! A day off here means that someone (normally more than one person) will come up with a brilliant idea to go outside and do something — and try to take the rest of the station with them. Last Sunday, that good idea was a run/ride/ski from the Casey ski landing area down to the station, a distance of about 10km.

Admittedly it did take a little while for the troops to get moving but once people were up and about the enthusiasm took hold, support vehicles were readied, drivers found and survival packs checked. The weather looked like it didn’t want to cooperate and a rather threatening snow storm seemed to be gathering up on the plateau. But with full assurances of being careful and sensible with a keenness to at least get outside and have a look, an intrepid group set off up the hill in two Haggs late in the morning.

The weather looked quite good once they arrived and so they set off towards home but less than halfway there, the sensible decision was made to pile into the Haggs, return to station and take the coffee and book option for the afternoon. The weather had finally decided to start making its way from the plateau towards the station and down here we have learned very quickly never to take any chances with the weather.

Despite the outing being cut short everyone was pleased that they had managed to get off station, even if only for an hour or so, and make the most of being in this amazing place.