The town of Longyearbyen in Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago lies less than 1,500 kilometres from the North Pole. It’s home to the world’s most northerly fire brigade, which, with its small but well-equipped fleet of Scania fire trucks, keeps this isolated settlement safe, year round.
Longyearbyen is the administrative centre of Svalbard and its only large settlement. The town’s population is about 2,200 people, which is fewer than the number of polar bears in the archipelago.
Svalbard’s Governor has assigned the town’s fire and rescue service, Longyearbyen Brannvern, the task of defending the life, health, property and environment of inhabitants. The emergency response team comprises 24 people, made up of three full-time and 21 part-time staff members, all of whom can be called into the centrally located station in less than five minutes.
Jann-Egil Gjerde is Deputy Brigade Chief. “We’re quite a vulnerable community due to our remote and isolated location,” he says. “Basically, we’re on our own if anything happens. That’s why our fire brigade has to be better equipped than those of other comparable communities.”
The closest large settlement that can provide help if required is Tromsö on the Norwegian mainland, two hours south by plane.
Like the rest of Svalbard, Longyearbyen has a polar desert climate. The city is covered in snow and icefor most of the year, with the exception of four months during summer when temperatures rise to just above zero. Permafrost means that no trees or bushes can grow here.
It’s a legal requirement to carry firearms outside of the town boundaries as defence against polar bears.
The air in Longyearbyen is very dry, which over time makes all inflammable materials highly combustible. The town’s houses are all made of wood and closely grouped together. Strong winds often come in from the east or west, increasing the risk that a fire will spread quickly. That’s why most buildings in Longyearbyen have smoke and fire detectors connected directly to the fire station – something that carries both advantages and disadvantages.
“The majority of call-outs are to people who might have had a drink or two too many and have fallen asleep with a casserole on the stove or something burning in the oven,” says Gjerde. “This can, of course, be frustrating.”
However, on Friday 7 December, 2012, the roof of the local power plant caught fire, forcing Longyearbyen’s fire brigade to undertake one of its most time-consuming and risky rescue missions ever. The power plant is the heart of this vulnerable society, and having this and the nearby back-up unit both out of action during winter would create a nightmare scenario. This would require the emergency evacuation of the entire population to the Norwegian mainland.
“That would be the absolute worst kind of situation that we would have to deal with,” says Gjerde.
Support from Scania
Having to fight the fire on the power plant’s roof, some 30 metres above ground, led to the fast tracking of plans to purchase a new, larger crane truck. The very next year, Scania delivered a third fire truck, with a 32-metre Bronto lift.
Another horror scenario for Longyearbyen’s fire brigade is a potential fire onboard the Queen Elizabeth II or one of the other giant cruise liners that occasionally visit Svalbard during the summer.
“If you count both passengers and crew, there can be as many as 4,000 people onboard,” Gjerde says.“We have two helicopters, but they wouldn’t be able to do much in that type of situation.”
Longyearbyen is a compact community and its road network extends only a few kilometres on each side of the village before ending in snow and ice. When the fire alarm sounds, the part-time firefighters can all be at the station within two to three minutes and can start extinguishing the blaze in under 10 minutes.
Reliable and easy to drive
“We live so close to each other that our fire engines don’t need to go fast or far,” Gjerde says. “The reason that we’ve chosen to work exclusively with Scania is that we need vehicles that are reliable and simple to work with. All 27 members of our fire brigade must be able to drive them.”
Another factor is that the turn-over of part-time firefighters is relatively high in Longyearbyen. Every year some 20 to 25 percent of the staff leaves. However, the fire brigade has a good reputation and the part-time jobs are highly sought after.
“We’re constantly familiarising people with the equipment and training is conducted throughout the year,” Gjerde says. “Everyone who starts here has to learn how to drive our fire trucks.”
The Scania vehicles used by the world’s northernmost fire brigade include a 32-metre crane truck, a crew carrier, and a tanker. Scania has no distributor or service facility in Svalbard. When the vehicles in Longyearbyen need service or maintenance, Scania service technicians are flown in from Tromsö in Norway.
Five facts about Svalbard
- The polar night runs from 26 October to 14 February each year. From 14 November until 29 January, there’s no discernible difference between night and day.
- The midnight sun shines from 19 April until 26 August each year.
- All of Svalbard is a polar desertthanks to the extremely low humidity.
- The village of Longyearbyen is home to more than 40 nationalities.
- The Austfonna ice cap – the world’s third largest after those in Antarctica and Greenland – is located in Svalbard.