Dan Hust | Democrat
JOHN CASSIDY JR. will soon arrive at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica for his first paying gig as a firefighter. Above, he already has had a business card made for when he becomes a member of the Antarctic Fire Department.
A Long, Cold Way to Fight Fires
By Dan Hust
FORESTBURGH August 10, 2007 Two weeks from today, John Cassidy Jr. will trade 90-degree days of sun and greenery for -40-degree nights of wind and endless white.
And he’s doing it willingly.
“I can’t wait to go,” he said this week.
One hundred ten years after Hortonville native Dr. Frederick Cook became the first local to make the trip, Cassidy, of Forestburgh, will soon become the latest Sullivan County resident to visit Antarctica.
He’ll arrive at the tail end of the southernmost continent’s brutal winter season, serving at McMurdo Station for seven months as a professional firefighter.
“The first question people ask me is, ‘Why?’” Cassidy, 26, grinned under a hot August sun. “The second is, ‘Are there really fires in Antarctica?’”
With nearly 100 buildings, 1,200 occupants and a host of aircraft at McMurdo, the answer to the second question is easy: yes.
The answer to the first, however, is a bit more complicated.
A Forestburgh volunteer firefighter for the past decade, Cassidy was in the midst of an EMT class at the state fire academy in Montour Falls in 2005 when he noticed the back of the shirt of a student in front of him.
It contained a diagram of Antarctica and made mention of a fire rescue team.
“He told me he was a dishwasher down there,” recalled Cassidy who was intrigued, but not enough to spark any real interest.
Three months later, he saw the same shirt while taking another class at the academy, this one being worn by a member of the New York Air National Guard.
The Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, based near Schenectady, is tasked with housing and flying the LC-130 “Hercules” aircraft which conduct most of the flights into and out of Antarctica.
Cassidy’s interest increased, but he remained focused on becoming a paid firefighter, sending out resumes to departments in places like New Haven, Conn., and Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Then all of a sudden, all these penguin movies were coming out,” he said with a laugh. “It was that repetitive.”
He took it as a sign to apply and did so early this year (he had missed the 2006 deadline by two weeks).
While the federal National Science Foundation (NSF) oversees the 50-year-old McMurdo Station, Raytheon Polar Services actually operates it, providing everything from mechanics to plumbers to chefs.
Cassidy flew out to Denver (in a snowstorm, no less) to participate in Raytheon’s job fair and subsequently aced a phone interview. After passing a battery of physical and mental tests, he was hired and spent several days in Salt Lake City training and learning the ins and outs of working (not to mention surviving) in Antarctica.
Slated to leave out of Newark in two weeks, Cassidy will spend close to another week just getting to McMurdo, via Denver (a 2-day stop for more training), Los Angeles and a 121⁄2-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand.
From there, he’ll hop a plane to Christchurch, New Zealand, where virtually all of the Antarctica flights originate. At this point, he’ll be equipped with the gear necessary for Antarctic life.
While all his travel will be paid for by Raytheon, only the last leg will be on a military plane a half-day’s flight on a C-17 “Globemaster III,” where he’ll be allowed just 75 pounds of baggage.
Assuming the weather cooperates, Cassidy will land with half a dozen or so other new firefighters on an ice runway a few miles away from McMurdo Station, itself located on Ross Island, connected to the mainland by an ice sheet.
Once on base, he’ll join a 40-person-strong force dedicated to ensuring the safety of the largest settlement on the least-populated continent on earth.
And that means more than fighting fires.
“Every firefighter down there is an EMT,” he said, so he’ll be on call for health emergencies, as well as being ready to respond to hazardous materials, aircraft rescues, and even search missions.
The pay is nothing spectacular, but the scenery and experience sure will be.
“The station is in the shadow of an active volcano,” Cassidy explained, referring to Mount Erebus, where a literal lava lake can be visited at its crown. “… And there’s a slim chance I can work at the South Pole.”
McMurdo is about 900 miles from the South Pole and its Amundsen-Scott Station, and a road is actually being built to connect the two.
Not that Cassidy will have much “spare time” Raytheon has told him to expect 24-hour shifts, 72-hour workweeks, days and nights that literally go on forever, and no outside visitors allowed.
“I’m going to miss him,” admitted his sister, Danielle, who works for MobileMedic and Monticello Raceway and Gaming as a paramedic. “I won’t have anyone to talk to after fires and EMS calls!”
Cassidy himself said dad John Sr. and mom Theresa, whom he currently lives with, are understandably anxious, although they do support his dreams.
“My dad had a chance to work on the Alaskan [oil] pipeline and didn’t, and he said to me, ‘Do it now, or you’ll regret it,’” the younger Cassidy recalled, then smiled: “Mom says she wishes she could be a button on my shirt!”
As Danielle pointed out, her brother won’t even be a phone call away, but he does plan on staying in touch. Through the help of friend Jimmy Rath, he’s already started a Website appropriately named www.lifeinafreezer.com, where anyone and everyone can check on his progress. (It currently contains a biography, journal entries, weather info and a contact page.)
Considering he was a substitute elementary and middle school teacher at Monticello for the past five years, it’s no surprise that Cassidy is also working with local teachers on lesson plans tied in with his experiences at the bottom of the planet.
Education is indeed close to his heart. The ’99 Monti High grad holds three bachelor’s and three associate’s degrees (yes, you read that right), all from the University of New Haven in Connecticut. The bachelor’s are in fire administration, fire and arson investigation, and investigative services, while the associates are in fire and occupational safety, law enforcement administration, and corrections.
“I was taking 24-credit-hour semesters,” he said with an almost bashful grin. “I’m very good at time management.”
That’s an understatement, considering he continued serving on the Forestburgh Fire Department (as assistant chief at the height of his involvement) and a fire department in Connecticut at the same time.
Antarctica, however, will offer him his first paid job as a firefighter a dream he’s been working toward most of his life. Though he’s not sure he’ll re-up his contract with Raytheon (that’s why he chose a 7-month stint rather than a full year), he is quite certain he’ll stay in firematics.
“I’d like to eventually work as a fire investigator,” Cassidy explained. “I always want to try something and take it to the next level.”
But even he admits Antarctica will be hard to top.
“I want to see Celsius and Fahrenheit thermometers read the same,” he said with an eager grin, “which they do when it hits minus-40 degrees!”