From snow researcher to seafarer

30.07.2019  |  Blog Logbook


David Wagner

Firefighting and sea rescue: SLF doctoral student David Wagner reports on what you need to learn to take part in an Arctic expedition at sea. 

This year, I will be joining the MOSAiC expedition on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. The expedition gets under way in September 2019, and SLF is going along to carry out snow measurements. I had to take a number of training courses and tests to prepare for the expedition, including the STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) basic-safety training course. This is a two-week, internationally recognised theoretical and practical course that qualifies people to work at sea. One week of the course dealt with firefighting, while the other focused on sea rescue.

It all began in a classroom at the AFZ training centre in the fishing harbour of the Hanseatic city of Rostock, in northern Germany. Hamid, who would be our trainer for the next two weeks, welcomed us to the centre and we all introduced ourselves. There were about 15 of us and we turned out to be an interestingly mixed group: my classmates included shipyard workers, stewardesses, tourist guides, civil servants, a crab fisherman, and a cook. 

A training maze and a fire container

We began with firefighting theory. Which information is included in a ship’s fire and safety plan? Where do fires most commonly break out on ships? What are the fire classes? This could have been pretty boring, but Hamid managed to capture everyone’s attention.

Then came the practical part. The next day, we were given a few pieces of background information and dispatched into a narrow maze with caged sides, known to professional firefighters as an SCBA maze. SCBA, of course, stands for self-contained breathing apparatus: we had to go into this tight space carrying breathing equipment – complete with oxygen canisters – on our backs. And as if that were not bad enough, the maze was in a darkened room. Once we were inside, the place filled up with smoke, a strobe light came on and loud, unpleasant noises were played in background, sending our adrenaline levels through the roof. Before going into the maze, we had to spend six minutes working out on various pieces of equipment while wearing the breathing apparatus. We were then sent into the training maze in groups of three. Although we knew that our trainer was outside watching us on camera and the metal grids could be removed in an emergency, it was still a stressful and rather unnerving experience.

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Smoke seeps through the caged sides of the maze, which we successfully came though. Photo: Julia Bachmann.
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Fire-extinguishing exercise: this participant forgot (or was too fearless!) to duck. You should always keep your head down inside the container, as fires can break out anywhere. Photo: Julia Bachmann
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Swimming in the harbour wearing survival suits was a refreshing experience, especially when you had had a late night the day before. Photo: Mathias Methner
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The free-fall lifeboat: it looks harmless enough when it is sitting on its rails. Photo: Julia Bachmann
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Everyone was nervous before the free-fall lifeboat launched – it does fall into the water from a height of 10 metres. Photo: David Wagner
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We had a lot of fun over the two-week course. Here, we are lowering and raising the lifeboat. Photo: Julia Bachmann.
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Relaxing after a tiring day: the participants enjoy a barbecue at the Rostock AFZ. Photo: Julia Bachmann

Another of the week’s highlights was entering the ‘fire container’ with the extinguishing equipment. The ‘fire container’ was an assembly of three shipping containers, some of it on two levels, fitted with gas jets and igniters which could be controlled from the outside. We had to make our way forward in teams of three, systematically extinguishing one fire after the next. Since extinguishing the fires causes water vapour to form, your vision soon becomes very limited. It was all very realistic: when a fire suddenly breaks out next to you in an enclosed space, your every instinct tells you to run for it! I have even more respect for firefighters after seeing what they have to deal with. To complete the course, we had to go through the container exercise two more times: once for practice, and once for the exam.

A ten-metre free fall in a lifeboat

The second week of the course was all about sea rescue. We studied the different types of lifeboat, life raft and flotation aid and how they worked, as well as the provisions of the SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) regulations. We also learned what to do in the event of an emergency at sea and how to revive people. We practised jumping off the quayside in survival suits and learned how to move while being buffeted by waves and how to climb out of the water on to a life raft.

As a group, we regularly practiced lowering the lifeboat from a davit arm. There are a lot of things to remember, and everything has to be done just right: in an emergency situation, mistakes could have fatal consequences. We were also trained in steering lifeboats and even performing the man-overboard procedure, which involves locating and recovering a lifebuoy.

My personal highlight was the launch of the free-fall lifeboat. The boat perches up in the air on slightly tilted rails, and you sit inside with your back to the water. Once everyone is strapped in, the skipper releases the catch. The boat then hurtles backwards and dives into the water from a height of 10 metres, before the pressure of the water sends it shooting straight back up to the surface. Beats a theme park any day!

On the last day of the course, we had to take our theoretical and practical exams. All in all, it was a very intensive yet very instructive two weeks and I made a lot of new acquaintances. Besides gaining all the practical knowledge I needed for the upcoming expedition, I also acquired some new life skills – after all, it is always useful to know how to put out a fire.