In-seam response: NSW answer to saving lives

NINETY minutes during a coal mine emergency can mean the difference between life and death and millions of dollars. NSW Mine Rescue plans to do away with the lengthy response time through implementing an in-seam response system that could save lives and mines.
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Courtesy NSW Mine Rescue Service.

Angie Tomlinson

Traditional forms of rescue involved miners using self contained self-rescuers (SCSR) to exit the mine and Mine Rescue and brigades being dispatched from the surface to conduct rescue or firefighting operations. The in-seam or first response system proposes that through utilizing the compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA), suitably trained miners can be the first point of response and take minor action to alleviate a problem or perform a rescue.

“I think this system has a greater potential of saving lives – and I mean directly saving lives where one miner can get another miner to a point of safety,” said NSW Mine Rescue Service GM Murray Bird.

“Unfortunately rescue has a great history of saving mines and recovering bodies. That 90 minute lapse from when the incident occurs to when brigades go active in the mine is a critical time period,” he said.

Bird said in New South Wales Mine Rescue had saved six lives since its inception in 1926, but sadly recovered a lot more bodies.

The estimated 90-minute delay between occurrence and rescuer teams being underground comes from four main areas. On average there is a 20 to 30 minute lapse from the occurrence of the incident and the rescue system being activated at the mine site.

“In the case where there is a massive explosion and you don’t have to look any deeper, Mine Rescue is alerted immediately. But in the case of something like an alarm going off, it is a natural tendency for people to deny or normalize the problem until investigations prove that it is real” he said.

“For example in the case of Moura there was a delay in notifying mines rescue as personnel thought the explosion was a wind blast from a goaf fall. During the Gretley inundation there was a 35-minute delay from when the deputy saw water coming out of the panel and Mine Rescue was alerted. The deputy walked up the road to the dam, as that was the only likely source for that amount of water.”

The next 30 minutes are taken up in travel time from a rescue station to a mine. It can then take from five minutes to hours to gather sufficient information on what is happening underground in order to safely dispatch mines rescuer teams underground. Travel time from surface to affected area can then take anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes.

Currently in New South Wales 75% of underground mine employees use the CABA apparatus in their escape systems. Unlike the SCSR, the CABA unit can be used as a rescue piece of equipment as it contains a pressure gauge, air content level, protects the eyes, allows for communications and can be refilled from stations within the mine. This means it allows for in-seam intervention when used by suitably trained mine employees.

Bird said the CABA apparatus can be used to fight small fires and perform rescues / recoveries over limited distances of 200 to 500 metres. This allows trained miners who are on shift and underground to try and resolve the problem within that first critical 90 minutes.

“The difference between a 90 minute pre-burn on a fire is chalk and cheese. If you can fight a fire when it is in its earlier stages you will get it out fairly quickly. If you give a coal fire hours of pre-burn, you have got a major problem not only in extinguishing it but also with gases (afterdamps), roof and side and possibly ventilation,” he said.

In conjunction with the underground Coal Industry, NSW Mine Rescue is currently in the throes of putting together a training course and a set of simple guidelines to govern the way the CABA is used for in-seam response.

“For example in the case of a small fire that can be fought with fire extinguishers or fire hose in-seam response by suitably trained miners would be fine but if you need to use high expansion foams or inertisation gear, get out and let the rescue teams do it. If you have visibility of at least 13 metres you should be able to penetrate up to 200 metres, or 500 metres with communication. This is the sort of criteria we plan to address with the guidelines and reinforce during the training course.”

At this stage implementation of first or in-seam response is in its early stages and will continue on a voluntary basis. The first trial in-seam response training course is scheduled early this year at West Cliff colliery. Thirty-three people have volunteered for the training at the mine, well above the suggested eight per shift.

“There is both a threat and opportunity here. If you have got this equipment in the mines and you don’t put a system in place somebody is going to use it to help their mates during an emergency situation. So don’t turn your back on it, give your workers the right tools, training and guidelines for the use of CABA.”

“In the last 12 months two miners (in the USA) performed a rescue using the self-contained self-rescuers (SCSR) that are only designed for self escape. One miner collapsed, as the SCSR didn’t indicate to him he was about to run out of oxygen. He didn’t die but he got awful close to it.

“Collieries in NSW are concentrating on getting their self escape system right first and then they will consider putting in-seam response training and implementation in place. This is the correct philosophy to have because if you can not self escape and can not get to a point of safety and thus you can not commence in-seam response. ”

Bird said to date the reaction from coal companies, mine managers and mine workers had been extremely positive. A number of mine managers are inputting into the trials and guidelines as their mines are ready to move to the next stage of calling for volunteers to undergo in-seam response training.

“This is something that has never been done anywhere else in the world so we are stepping slowly and carefully, making sure self escape systems are working properly before we go to the next stage.”