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From the Archives: McMurdo Station, Antarctica: The Ultimate Dispatch Challenge

Author: John M. Eller

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-11-30
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McMurdo Station, located on the coast of Ross Island, Antarctica, is dwarfed below Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volvano in the world.  McMurdo is the largest research station operated by the US Antarctic Program.  During the austral summer season the population is near 1,000 and it declines to around 200 during the austral winter.  Photo:Melanie Conner/National Science Foundation

Originally Published in our January, 2003 issue


The challenge of a lifetime!  Dispatching from McMurdo Fire Station, 35 miles from the foot of Mt. Erebus, an active volcano that rises 12,400 feet above sea level.  Smoke and steam are seen spewing from its cone on a daily basis. The fire station is located on Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island.  Sound exciting?  Wait – there’s more! 

This assignment is for the strong willed, adventure-minded dispatcher, because you are not on a 100-degree tropical island, you are at the bottom of the earth in Antarctica.  Storms blow in from the south over the polar plateau and come roaring through “Herbie Alley,” with winds up to 100 mph that can drop the wind-chill to -100F.  The nickname “Herbie” comes from the combination of hurricane and blizzard. 

McMurdo was established in 1955 and is located on the southern end of Ross Island, an island of volcanic origin approximately 45 miles wide and 45 miles long.  James Clark Ross discovered the island in 1841 and McMurdo Sound was named after Lt.  Archibald McMurdo, an officer on the ship Terror, one of the first ice-breakers to breech the glacial Antarctic ice.

This is an island where it is not uncommon to see 800 lb.  Weddell seals, Adelie and Emperor penguins, along with Orcas and Minke whales.  The whales have not been able to come close to the town owing to a formidable iceberg named B15 that has blocked the entrance to the sound for the last three years.  There are also rare birds on the island; however, by their own admission, the rarest breed that one may encounter at McMurdo is the wild and somewhat untamed North American Emergency Services Dispatcher.  They have brought their stateside dispatch skills to bear in this most inhospitable of environments.  Their habitat is a small dispatch room inside Antarctica Fire Station 1.  This year, four of their species have accomplished the migration to McMurdo to make up the Antarctic Public Safety Dispatch Center for the summer months.

Rhonda Ward, 38 [seated in photo at right], has been a dispatcher for Lehigh County (PA) for five years.  She is EMT, EMD certified, along with being a tactical dispatcher.  She previously served as Chief of Operations with a volunteer ambulance company and worked as an EMT for three seasons at Dorney Amusement Park, in Allentown, PA. 

Lead Dispatcher Lori Gravelle, 36 [standing, center], is on her third tour of duty at McMurdo Station.  Before her Antarctic adventure, she worked nine years as an emergency services dispatcher, EMD-instructor, and EMT-B in Vail, CO.  Her first tour at McMurdo was during the summer of 1999-2000.  She returned for another year in 2001.  Bitten by the volunteer and adventure spirit, Lori has volunteered in Nepal and various other exotic but often chilly locales. Upon her return to the US she spent the summer dispatching for UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) until the lure of Antarctica drew her back.  She’s there now until October 2003.

Charlotte Page, 41 [standing, left], from Arizona, retired from a career in marketing and research.  She and her husband went on a two year sailing adventure on a 34 foot sailboat they named April Fools.  Her radio experience was gleaned from her boating career.  She was accepted for the dispatching position at McMurdo and upon completing her first tour hopes to return for another summer season in 2003-04.

Janet Huddleston, 45 [standing, right], originally from Nashville, TN, has lived in New Zealand for 14 years.  She was a schoolteacher and park ranger in both the US and New Zealand.  She has traveled to all seven continents and has spent time in 55 countries.  Janet has spent six summer seasons in Antarctica and has worked or spent time at all three US Antarctica bases (McMurdo, Palmer, Amundson-Scott South Pole Station). 

The four 9-1-1 dispatchers assigned to McMurdo Station during the 2002-2003 austral summer season.  The Antarctic summer has sunlight 24-hours a day, but temperatures can drop as low as 50 degress Fahrenheit.  (This photo, incidentally, was taken in Dec. 2002, near edge of town at the McMurdo Station sign, overlooking Winter Quarters Bay.  This is the same site where Robert Falcon Scott and two others in his group departed to begin his Discovery Expedition of Nov. 1902 – 100 years and one month before this photo was taken. On that expedition, Scott’s team reached farther south than any group had in history.)  Photo: Hunter Bachrach

The summer season in Antarctica, as in all southern hemisphere locations, is opposite that of the US.  Daylight begins in August and in October the sun rises for the remainder of the summer season, setting again in late February.  It is completely dark 24/7 from the end of April until mid August.  The summer population is usually 800 to 1,000.  The winter population this year will be approximately 160 people.  There are no flights during winter and therefore no mail or fresh food.

The dispatchers work in 12-hour shifts, rotating between days and nights every 18 days. Their duties include fire and EMS emergencies, computer data entry, fire alarms, auto dialers, alarm testing, trouble alarms, noise complaints, lock outs, all emergency work orders, emergency notifications for base utilities.  The dispatchers monitor off-base vehicle movements during extreme weather conditions, and all off-base foot travel.  They also handle inbound flight emergencies (both mechanical and medical) as well as dive emergencies.  They are the starting point to coordinate any multiple casualty response that may be needed.

"Red-1," one of five ARFF vehicles that protect the Antarctica airfields at McMurdo Station, stands by while an LC130 medevac flight takes off with a research station worker suffering heart problems.  He was transported to a hospital in New Zealand.

Those traveling by foot must first obtain a written foot plan and a radio communications plan.  The dispatchers monitor seven frequencies including Fire, EMS, I-net (aircraft), and a number of field operations business channels.  They answer base telephone calls and most incoming stateside calls.  It is a small center with plenty to do.  As with most dispatch centers, they are at the hub of a complex communications chain that reaches out in all directions.  There is a 9-1-1 line and seven non-emergency telephone lines.  The dispatchers handle hundreds of calls during their shift, ranging from pre-arrival emergency medical instructions to directions on how to dial home. 

Working on Antarctica affords unique opportunities for site-seeing on days off.  Here, dispatchers Page, Gravelle, and Ward are shown in front of the Barnes Glacier during a trip to Cape Evans.  They are about 30 yards in front of the glacier, which is about 100 feet high in this location.  It grows back several miles toward the base of Mt. Erebus. Photo: Ty Miller.

There are three airfields.  The summer airfield is referred to as the “Ice Runway.”  Winter crews work hard to prepare its use for the summer season.  The ice is only about eight to ten feet thick for landing giant military aircraft.  The sea below the ice is 1400 feet deep.  During the latter part of the summer, the flights are diverted to Williams Field and Pegasus Runway where the ice thickness remains constant (approximately one mile thick).

The LC-130’s can land utilizing wheels or skis.  The New York Air National Guard is in charge of the majority of air support for the American Base.

Left: ARFF unit Red-5 parked in front of Station 2 at the ice runway, with two LC-130 Hercules parked in the background. Photo: Lori Gravelle

During off duty hours there are a number of activities to participate in at the bottom of the earth.  There are three clubs at McMurdo for socializing.  There are also several aerobics conditioning classes to keep everyone fit.  There is a weight room, cardio room, ceramics, sewing room, and library.  There is a coffee house with board games, taped television, VCR, and Internet access.  A gymnasium is available to all.  So is a climbing wall.  McMurdo folk can participate in intramural sports such as hockey, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and rugby.  They have a summer and winter bowling league and open bowling featuring “cosmic bowling” with black lights. 

McMurdo has the distinction of having the oldest Brunswick bowling alley in the world.  Pin setting is performed manually, and it’s a welcome custom to tip your pinsetters.  There are outdoor activities (no surf and sand) such as hiking, cross-country skiing, and bike riding (there are a few mountain bikes on station).  For the brave-hearted, a summer marathon is held, and for the less inclined, a golf tournament (using orange balls.  Try to find white ones in all that snow!).  Instead of recreational scuba diving, divers assist with scientific projects.  There are off base historic tours as well.  There are lectures several times a week presented by scientists doing research, with a number of continuing education classes being offered.  Who said there was nothing to do in Antarctica? 

Above Right: Reflected in the door to the Dispatch Center at McMurdo Station is one of two structural fire engines assigned to Station 1.  Photo: Lori Gravelle

Most people find out about the jobs through word of mouth, on the Internet, or at an annual job fair held in Denver, Colorado.  Dispatchers are employed by Raytheon Polar Services of Colorado, which is contracted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for all logistical support for the US Antarctic Program. 

Rhonda, Charlotte, and Janet will stay through February 2003.  Lori is in for the long winter haul until October 2003. 

One last dispatch message that Rhonda and Lori felt that most of you would not have to be concerned with back home in the US: dispatching firefighters to herd seals and penguins off the runway for an incoming flight!

For more information about Antarctica dispatching or take a virtual tour of McMurdo Station at

SIDEBAR: Profile of One Antarctica 9-1-1 Dispatcher (Rhonda Ward's Journey from Lehigh County, PA to McMurdo Station, Antarctica)

SEE COMPANION STORY: Antarctica Fire: Public Safety Under Down Under by Randall D. Larson

John M.  Eller was the Police Chief in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, from 1981-2012.  In addition to being a long-time columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine, he is a certified police instructor, consultant, criminal justice instructor, and weekly newspaper columnist, and is currently co-coordinator of the Citizen's Police Academy for Parkside /Pennsylania State Police.  
Several photos in this archive were not previously published due to space limitations, and are presented here for the first time.




Mock-up for unused cover design, Jan-Feb 2003 issue.


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