Most of us think a few days with temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit is pretty challenging. Try 40 or 50 degrees below zero for weeks at a time, sometimes with winds howling at 30-40 miles an hour. Those conditions, common in Alaska, are so dangerous they can kill or seriously harm a person in minutes.
Despite such brutal conditions, we have a job to do: keep our customers connected. Once in a while, that job requires we compromise with Mother Nature. And sometimes, achieving that goal can mean putting your life on the line.
"The worst part is the wind and exposed skin,” said Jerry Conlon, a facility mechanic who’s worked in Alaska for 20 years. “You have to dress in layers. As the temperature drops, you can get so big and bulky it’s difficult to do the job. I might spend hours to get prepared for a job that only takes 15 minutes to complete.”
Jerry is a jack of all trades. He takes care of generators, rebuilds engines, welds and handles building and vehicle maintenance. He’s even a heavy equipment operator and truck driver.
Adding to that lengthy list of skills, Jerry has also mastered the art of bundling up to fend off the cold. Typical winter weather gear includes insulated coveralls, goose down parkas with an attached hood, a face mask and mittens. There can be no exposed skin.
In severe weather, with temperatures below minus 40 or 50 degrees, the wind can burn exposed skin like sunburn at the beach.
Then there’s frostbite.
“I’ve gotten frostbite a couple of times,” Jerry said. “When that happens, my fingers get cold and tighten up. On my cheeks, the skin stings and turns white. But what it really hurts is when it thaws out.”
He said our equipment isn’t affected by the cold. But at those extreme temperatures, if a person touches metal, “it will burn like it’s white-hot. And if there is moisture on your hand, you will never get it off.”
Snow as hard as concrete
In this winter climate, snow is the consistency of concrete. When it invades antennas and anything else exposed to the weather, it can only be removed with a pick and shovel.
“We are a bit different up here,” said Kay Witt, director of network operations in Alaska. “More than half of our 600-plus sites are microwave or satellite earth stations, and many of them are pretty remote. An additional challenge in the winter months is the lack of daylight. We can’t fly to the remote sites at night.
“We still do anything in the winter we do in the summer, but it takes us two to three times longer. In extreme cold—40 below and colder—we control permission to work outside. We make sure there are adequate crews who can switch out so we ensure everyone stays safe.”
There have been no serious cold weather injuries, Kay said, though there have been a couple of close calls. Once, an employee was returning from work at a remote highway site and hit a moose on the road in the dark and blowing snow. The impact killed the moose and knocked out the driver’s side of the windshield. Because of the severe cold (minus 35 degrees), the employee raised the snowplow to block the wind so he could drive to a garage.
Sometimes you can’t get there from here
Even getting to a job can be challenging. Snow-clogged roads mean employees must use snowmobiles or tracked vehicles with enclosed cabins. The company does operate two small planes that work well in the cold. However, many of the sites on mountaintops must be accessed with a helicopter.
Other locations in the bush require use of a smaller charter aircraft that can’t tolerate the cold as well and doesn’t fly when temperatures hit minus 35 degrees. Helicopters can fly slowly in low visibility, but they—and smaller charter planes—are susceptible to icing and high winds, which limit their visibility.
If it’s absolutely necessary to use piston engine airplanes in severe cold, generally the operator will have to drain the oil when the plane lands, then reheat it and pour it back in when we’re ready to go, Kay said. “In any event, we generally stop flying if it’s below minus 35 degrees, and we curtail most activity when it drops under 40 below.”
Because of potential travel problems, we actually have a few technicians and mechanics who live in pump stations along with Trans-Alaska pipeline. We have the contract to support pipeline communications, and staying on site minimizes critical response time.
Don’t become bear food
While wildlife is certainly plentiful, Alaskans know to keep their distance from the bears. “Polar bears are the perfect predator,” Kay said. “Stay alert, give them their space and you should be fine. To protect themselves, our employees in this environment are authorized to carry weapons, as long as they have proper training.”
In the closest brush with danger, an employee was on his way to a job and spending the night in a heated way station. A nearby polar bear smelled him and tried to get through the metal door.
“As the bear was bending back the door, the employee was frantically calling some of the local villagers to chase it away,” Kay said. “The bear was able to stick his head through the door before others got there and chased him away.”
Negative 50-degree temperatures with gusting winds, polar bear sighting and the art of ice-melting. It’s all in a day’s work to keep our network operating. And it’s certainly a job like no other.