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Keeping cool key for surviving desert deployment

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (AFPN) -- It would seem to take a Herculean effort to turn a 32-foot by 12-foot by 20-foot tent that has been boiling outside in 90- to 130-degree temperatures into a veritable icebox. But superheroes from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing -- appropriately dubbed "icemen" - do it every day

The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning experts do not possess any superhuman powers to achieve their extraordinary icy results. They are merely armed with wrenches, screwdrivers and an assortment of specialized equipment.

These experts maintain an aging collection of environmental control units, some more than 20 years old. ECUs are essentially huge A/C units that cool the tents.

"We provide something people can feel," said Master Sgt. Lewis Ratleff, noncommissioned officer in charge of the HVAC section which is responsible for chilling base shelters to the comfortable temperature of 70 to 78 degrees.

Ratleff said the best part of his job is knowing what he does has a direct impact on someone's quality of life right off the bat.

ECUs run continuously -- a colossal strain on equipment that never receives downtime unless it breaks. In a temperate climate with highs that barely tip the thermostat at 100 degrees, just one ECU can cool four to five tents or one insulated 2,500-square-foot house. Not here.

In Southwest Asia, the icemen's nemeses is heat, sand and daily power outages. This causes the ECUs to stop working at the rate of six to seven units per day. Replacement parts are not easy to come by either. Parts can take days or months to arrive.

In temperatures higher than 90 degrees, Category 5 heat index guidelines suggest people work outside only 10 minutes and rest 50 minutes in the same heat conditions when doing hard work such as digging holes, carrying heavy equipment or repairing ECUs.

"We don't get to enjoy the Category 5 heat index," said Ratleff. "When the heat kicks in, that's when things break around here."

That is also when the icemen kick into action because they know that a broken ECU can wreak havoc on a shift worker's sleep time. The temperature inside a tent can exceed the outside temperature in a matter of minutes.

"You can't survive in this environment without (cool) air," said Ratleff. "If it's a 120 degrees outside, add 10 to 15 degrees on top of that inside the tents."

At best, it takes icemen at least 10 minutes to get a unit working or to swap it out. Some units can take up to three hours to fix.

Icemen also maintain and repair all the refrigeration units in the dining facility and community activity centers plus the chiller units in aircraft hangars, and the portable coolers for security forces working outside. With more than 400 units around base, the icemen stay busy jetting around base to rescue personnel from supercharged hot air. But, they wouldn't have it any other way.

"The biggest part of my job that I like is it's a morale booster," said Staff Sgt. Richard P. Zolnowski III, a technician deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. "When you go out into 120 degrees, you want air conditioning. Without us, you're going to be suffering."

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