Icemen Get Dirty: Power plant operations are electrifying

Aumau Aumau, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron fireman, regulates flames at the central heat and power plant Feb. 8, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Firemen observe and interpret readings on gauges, meters and charts to ensure the boilers are operating properly. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jim Araos)

Aumau Aumau, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron fireman, regulates flames at the central heat and power plant Feb. 8, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Firemen observe and interpret readings on gauges, meters and charts to ensure the boilers are operating properly. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jim Araos)

Richard Schrell, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron welder, builds a support bracket Feb. 8, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The bracket will serve as a camera mount in the central heat and power plant coal bunker. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jim Araos)

Richard Schrell, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron welder, builds a support bracket Feb. 8, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The bracket will serve as a camera mount in the central heat and power plant coal bunker. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jim Araos)

Icemen Get Dirty (U.S. Air Force graphic/Tech. Sgt. Tim Jenkins)

Icemen Get Dirty (U.S. Air Force graphic/Tech. Sgt. Tim Jenkins)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- *Editor's Note: Icemen Get Dirty is a series that takes an inside look at what it takes to be employed in various work environments. In this segment, the Central Heat and Power Plant is featured in two parts.

Inside the labyrinths of the power plant, a worker shies away from the coal furnace as he opens the door exposing flames extending several feet high. Another technician watches the water differential to ensure there is a constant amount of water - a task necessary in preventing a work accident that could kill workers and put the base in a dire situation.

Ten hours in grease, lubricants and coal and surrounded by delicate balances that must be closely monitored, the workers inside the Central Heat and Power Plant toil in an environment that demands their best.

According to Master Sgt. Robert Fleming, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron power plant operations superintendent, working in the power plant is a dirty job because there are some areas throughout the plant that even in winter have extreme temperatures reaching 130 degrees.

Coal from Healy, Alaska, is brought to Eielson by train. More than 800 tons a day are used to run the plant, producing energy by heating coal in a furnace, which in turn heats water in a boiler, creating steam. The steam turns a turbine, converting the energy into electricity through the use of a generator.

"There's about 6,000 personnel using energy and turning on lights, not to mention plugging in their cars," Fleming said. "Plus, factor in all the facilities on base that must be kept heated so pipes don't freeze and break and you can see just how important the power plant is."

Without fail, the plant must operate each day in order to ensure base operations and residents are provided for. There is no off day or reprieve for the plant operators, and the plant is not a playground to be careless in.

There are strict rules and standards established by the Federal Railroad Administration, wing safety and Occupational Safety and Health Administration that workers must comply with for the safety of the individual and environment.

Although a dirty job, the power plant offers a startlingly clean product.

A common misconception is that the power plant continuously releases long ribbons of "smoke" often seen coming out of the top of the building, said Marty Overlin, 354th CES superintendent of heating and power. This could not be further from the truth. What people are seeing is the release of extremely hot vapors which condense in the atmosphere creating the white plumes.

The power plant is an intricately designed asset. Although there is no constant reminder of what is accomplished day to day, the workers continue to provide the electricity necessary to maintain comfortable living and working conditions on Eielson, a job that continuously challenges the power plant staff.

"Just when you think you've got it all figured out, she'll let you know you don't," said Overlin in reference to working in the power plant.

Despite the challenges, the CHPP Icemen get dirty each day, providing the necessary power to Eielson's mission and its residents.