Sunday, November 23, 2014

MCI Drill - Mass Casualty Incident

McMurdo is huge by comparison to Palmer (~1,000 people vs 40) and as such has vastly more capable medical facilities.  However, we're still small by comparison to anything in the real world and while we do have a doctor and multiple other medical personnel on station year-round, our four-bed clinic is just that: a clinic.

Given how large our population is, and how much heavy equipment we have driving around, the possibility of a medical emergency that would completely overwhelm our facilities is very real.  So once a season, we have a Mass Casualty Incident drill; simulating an event with at least ten severely injured people that requires the entire medical and fire/rescue teams to run at full capacity.  We did similar drills like this at Palmer (where any more than a single injured person was considered a Mass Casualty Incident), but McMurdo has significantly more resources to make the drill more realistic.

This season's scenario was that during a party at one of the bars, there was a fire/explosion in the furnace room, resulting in multiple broken bones, lacerations, and lots of people generally running around and screaming.  And because I responded to the e-mail within ten seconds flat, I was one of the lucky people to get to act as an injured victim :D

We all gathered at the bar roughly half an hour before the drill was to start.  They already had the fog machine going at full tilt, to provide a nice hazy environment for the firefighters to have to search through.

"Yes, I would like one alcohol please!" "I'm sorry, you must rescue at least three victims before you get bar privileges."

But then we got to break out the actual MCI kit, full of fake blood and prosthesis.  Various gloves and sleeves you could slide over different body parts to simulate an injury, and enough powder to make liters of fake blood! :D

There were to be a total of 14 victims, and there were plastic cards that we could attach to ourselves to tell our rescuers what our vital signs were supposed to be, as well as describing what injuries we had.  I immediately grabbed the one that said "Unresponsive, found laying in a pool of blood with a head injury."  Because . . . pool of blood!  :D

We didn't have long to prepare ourselves before the drill started.  Most people grabbed whatever prosthesis their injury cards specified; quite a few broken arms, broken legs, broken wrists, lacerations here and there. I was sad to see that no one wanted to go through the trouble of hooking up the squeeze pumps to simulate a gushing blood injury; most people just got a couple drops of fake blood and smeared it around on their skin a bit.

But I . . . I went for a different approach.

I was bummed that we didn't have any skin putty or makeup to blend the head wound in better.
I mixed up a packet of fake blood powder that's supposed to make a full liter of blood into just a couple cups of water, making a thin paste that I smeared over most of my face.  This dried quickly, and then I dumped a full liter of normal fake blood all over my head and face to complete the effect.

I had planned ahead and raided Skua for clothes, so I didn't ruin my own

With the drill starting in a few minutes, we all scurried to get into position.  Perhaps because of my previous experience of being a UT, or just because they didn't want a pool of fake blood to get all over the nice bar floor, I was in the furnace room, behind the building.

The red tissue paper with a flashlight in it was supposed to simulate the fire.

Two things to know about the furnace room; For safety reasons they'd shut down the furnace about an hour beforehand, and that there was no other heat in there.  By the time I laid down, with a head and shirt soaking wet with fake blood, it was barely above freezing.

And there I lay . . . for forty-five minutes.

Interestingly, when firefighters are presented with a room full of smoke and screaming people (including one girl who's explicit instructions were to run around hysterically and get in their way as much as possible), they get a bit preoccupied.  So much so that they forget to search the furnace room until the very end of the drill when their chief has to remind them that they haven't finished searching the building, or found the 14th victim, or found the source of the fire.

Twenty minutes into my wait I was getting borderline hypothermic, when I looked over and realized in the corner of the room was sitting little electric space heater, probably for use by the UTs when they're in there fixing stuff.  I dragged it over, turned in on full and curled up around it, which prevented the fingers from going completely numb until they finally found me almost half an hour later.

Now even though I knew I'd dumped a ton of fake blood on myself . . . I had no idea what I actually looked like.  It had all been done last minute, while sitting in the furnace room so I wouldn't get blood into places that people cared about.  So it was only when I was being carried out of the little room (and getting dropped twice.  Thanks, firefighters.  Apparently a scrawny 165lb guy is too much for a couple of firefighters to carry without scraping my back over gravel and ice) that I heard their initial radio reports back in of "We've found another victim . . . oh god . . . massive burns to face and neck, head trauma" that I began to suspect the makeup had been pretty effective.

I was transported via ambulance and wheeled into the clinic among shouts of "We have another code red here!  Out of the way people, code red!", and occasionally I could hear other commends of "Nice makeup, dude!" as I was presumably wheeled by people who were supposed to be more conscious than I.

They had simulated intubating me in the ambulance, and as I was wheeled into the triage area one of the nurses slapped a paper towel on me to simulate a bandage (it wouldn't make sense to use actual medical equipment for this large of a drill).

At which point the doctor came over to look at me, and as I'm laying there I hear her say:

"Well, if we have time we'll give -some medication that I can't remember- and treat for the trauma, but . . . I have to be honest, this guy isn't going to make it.  Presenting vitals like this, with massive frontal head trauma and likely brain injury, burns this severe to most of the head . . . if we were in a Level 4 trauma center, I'd give this guy maybe a 10% chance of survival, and likely never a full recovery.  He's a goner, he's a code Black. In this situation, when we have overstretched facilities with many other patients that we can save, we're not going to spend any resources on him.  We'll just keep him comfortable until he goes."

Through this whole thing, I had two primary thoughts:

1. Stay in character, you're unresponsive, unconscious, stay quiet, keep the drill fairly realistic . . .


For the first time in my life I managed to keep a straight face as they shuffled me off into the corner  of some office, basically leaving me there to die. 

An aid stayed with me (and we made out-of-character small talk) until the Chaplin arrived, at which point the aid went off to continue doing medical things as the Chaplin spoke about what he'd do in the situation.  Perform last rights, pray for me and my family, and basically make sure that if I did have to die down here, I didn't die alone.

Oddly, this was the first MCI drill that anyone could remember that they'd actually had a Code Black, a patient that died or was likely to die.  It sparked a lot of interesting conversation and debate during the de-brief, regarding the realities of triage and what people need to be mentally prepared for in a real MCI.  For the next few days I had many people commenting "Oh, YOU were the code black we heard over the radio!  We didn't know what they meant at first!  We had no idea what was going on until we heard them call for the Chaplin".

Once the drill was officially called and I was allowed to get up did I see people's reactions to my makeup.  And as many of them had been busy and hadn't seen me when I was wheeled in, the reaction on their faces when they laid eyes on me for the first time was PRICELESS.  The X-ray tech, who's also a sysadmin that I work with every day, said he didn't recognize me until I started talking.  Only once I found a mirror could I really appreciate my own handiwork . . . at which point I realized the only logical thing to do was run around rest of the station like a zombie.

And scare the bejeezus out of half the galley staff, who were only peripherally aware than the MCI drill was happening somewhere on station.   I would say I'm sorry . . . but that would be a lie.


Group photo of all the victims! (After they got me to stop hiding around corners and jumping out to scare people)

It took me three showers to get the fake blood out of my hair, nose, ears and got knows where else, after which the shower looked like a murder scene.  Something else I didn't realize was that the stuff actually stains the skin very effectively; my face was purple for three days after, and it still hasn't washed completely out of my hair two weeks later.  The sacrifices we make for art!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


informal noun
noun: boondoggle; plural noun: boondoggles

 Work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.

2. A trip off-station to accomplish work that while necessary, has absolutely nothing to do with your normal job and is just as much for moral as anything else.

Boondoggles are an Antarctic tradition that's been around for nearly as long as the stations themselves.  With so much of our population mostly stuck on station doing indoor work, the rare chances to get off McMurdo and see the rest of the continent are so highly prized that they're offered to work centers in a rotation.

Last week, my department was called and offered spots for three volunteers willing to be flown out into the middle of nowhere to do hard manual labor for many hours with no possibility of being indoors.  Strangely, I was the only one who jumped at the chance.

7am the next morning and the Delta shuttle picks us up for the ride out to Willy Field

What it lacks in creature comforts it makes up for in, um . . . something, I'm sure.

Getting out at the airfield.  I've been told these Deltas were never designed to carry people and the giant box bolted to the back was a modification done on the ice.

We got to the airfield a bit early, as the C-130s were being spooled up for the day.  We had to wait for them to clear the skiway before they could bring out transport out.

Technically LC-130s
This is a Basler, a DC-3 that has been extensively modified by Basler Turboprops in Wisconsin.  They add modern engines and avionics to an airframe that's been strengthen and lengthened, and the result is a beautifully classic and versatile machine. The aircraft that revolutionized commercial air transportation in the 1930s is still servicing the harshest parts of the planet today.

But we don't get the C-130, or even the Basler.  No, our transport today is in the smallest planes that regularly service this continent; the Twin Otter.

Oddly, this isn't nearly my first time flying in a Twin Otter, although it's one of my first times ever landing in one.  As a skydiver I've rode in many of these up to 14,000ft, only to open the door and hurl myself at the planet (which always seems like a good idea at the time).

It is my first time riding in one with skis, however.

Nice and cozy!
And away we go!

Willy Field, where we just took off from.

The permanent sea ice edge.  For just a couple months in high summer, open ocean will come up in on the left, up to that ice cliff.

McMurdo Station, home sweet home

Our destination was a Cape Reynolds, a fuel cache that's a bit over an hours flight to the north-west and on the continent proper (McMurdo is actually on Ross Island, not mainland Antarctica).  Flying north over the ocean gave us views of the open water that is slowly making its way south.

Cape Reynolds isn't a station or structure at all; just a bunch of 55 gallon drums of AvGas that are left here over the winter as a fuel cache to assist in any long-range operations, or for emergencies.  Over the winter they get drifted over and buried, and it's a yearly ritual to go dig them out and test the fuel to make sure it's still okay.

If we're lucky the barrels will still be close to the surface with a flag or two still sticking up.  If we're unlucky, we get out the GPS and say "Well, I guess we start digging here".

If you zoom in you can just make out the slight disturbance in the snow with a few flags still sticking out, slightly upper-right of center.

Luck was with us and the barrels were only just beneath the surface, meaning this was going to be a much easier task than we were anticipating.  After making a few scouting passes to observe the quality of the snow, the pilots touched down and parked us right next to the cache.

Hooray manual labor!

We had brought enough people to assume the worst, they they'd be 6 feet under the surface and would take all day to get out.  But just a few hours of chipping and shoveling got them free, leaving us time to enjoy whatever food we'd grabbed before we left.

If there's a situation where cold pizza isn't a good option, I haven't found it yet.

With the task over in just a few hours, back into the Otter we went for the flight back to McMurdo.  The pilots were nice enough to make most of the trip back at just a few thousand feet, rather than the customary 9,000 feet, to give us all a better view of this vast, desolate and strangely beautiful place we live in.

Hello little people doing science all the way down there!

Following the road back home

Monday, November 3, 2014

Not a desk job, Part 2

It's still relatively early in the season at McMurdo; We're getting close to full population and science is quickly ramping up into full swing, and most of us on the support side are in our busiest time of the year.  The last week has seen an awful lot of driving out onto the sea ice, working on things that are at the other end of that long-distance wireless shot we had to troubleshoot in my last update.

You can see the pressure ridges that build up where the permanent ice shelf is slammed up against the shore.  Each of those ridges is almost 30 feet tall.

Depending on how busy things are, you can sometimes borrow a van to drive out to the sea ice runways, where we have a lot of equipment to install.  Or if you can hitch a ride with someone who's heading out there anyway, you can play tourist and enjoy the views.

Best to follow at quite a distance.  Snow kicked up onto the front of a vehicle quickly turns to ice, and isn't fun to try and scrape off every ten minutes.

Just follow the flag line and you'll probably be okay.

Driving these big-wheel vans and trucks, even on groomed snow roads, is extremely sketchy.  Or at least, it feels that way.  The vehicles like to follow existing ruts and tracks, and in some places where the snow is deep you can get that sticky feeling of even these fat tires starting to bog down into the softer snow.  Smooth inputs and steady throttle can keep you out of the worst of it.

Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of driving across the sea ice will get you to Willy Field, a temporary collection of huts that makes up the majority of our air operations during the active summer months. 

After the buildings are towed into place and get power and heat, we're usually the first people into them to get the networking equipment installed.  Many times, no one has been into them yet to see what sort of chaos being towed around on the ice has caused.

Those blinky boxes on the wall are all I care about.  The stuff scattered about is someone else's problem.

Found in one of the huts.  I'm really glad my job doesn't require these any more.

Even getting into the buildings is problematic.  Most of them don't have stairs yet, so you're making do with kicking steps into any snow piles that happen to be close.

A co-worker pulling himself up into one of the huts.

Out closer to the ski-way, more stuff is being unloaded from the massive Kress tractor-trailers to complete the odd little town.

As this is a groomed snow-field, rather than bare ice (such as the much farther out Pegasus field), it's limited to ski-equipped aircraft such as Twin Otters and LC-130s.  At the time of these photos, they were just finishing prepping the area for the planes to arrive next week.

If you take a shuttle out you're limited by their schedule for how much time you can spend working out there.  But occasionally you'll get a vehicle from the shuttle fleet, or borrow one from another department, so you can drive around a bit more and get more done.  Of course . . . this means that it's your own driving skill that's going to stop you from getting stuck.

Or not.

In my defense, I wasn't driving.  I was doing my best to stifle my back-seat-driver instincts, and sat there quietly saying nothing while I'm my head I'm screaming "Why the hell are you aiming for the obviously softer snow?!  No no no stay away from those deep ruts . . . no no HEY STOP SLOWING DOWN YOU NEED THE MOMENTUM TO CARRY YOU THROUGH . . . okay you've lost the speed but don't just floor it you'll just dig yourself in NO HEY STOP IT . . . dammit." 

I humored my co-worker for an hour as we tried to dig our way out (even though it was immediately clear it was hopeless, the truck's rear diff was buried in the snow), but eventually they were forced to make the radio-call-of-shame, and then we had the view-of-shame as one of the massive Case tractors came to pull us out.

Thanks guy!
Putting in gear at Willy Field isn't our only location out on the ice that we have equipment at.  A half-mile or so away from Willy is the LDB (Long Duration Balloon) facility, where they assemble and launch high-altitude balloons that can circle the continent for weeks or even months at a time.

Oooooo science is shiny!

As flashy as this science is, my aspect of it is fairly similar no matter where I am.  Blinky boxes, connected via many wires to other blinky boxes.

Just for fun, that thing on the wall to the right is a thermometer.  Many of the buildings aren't heated (or aren't heated yet), and this is where I get to work for hours at a time.

Think about this the next time you complain about your office being too cold.

There's nothing quite like plugging in a few hundred network cables with numb fingers!