Through these winter months, as has been the case for the past 31 years, most of Queensland’s coal mines have sent teams to contest preliminaries for one of six places in the coveted annual EK Healy Cup mines rescue competition. This year the cup, named after a former local under secretary of mines, will be won at Anglo Coal’s Southern Colliery, near Dysart, on September 15.
The winning team qualifies for the annual Australian underground mines rescue competition, an event that was first staged in 1962 and this year will get under way on October 20 at Baal Bone colliery near Lithgow, in New South Wales.
Qualifiers for this year’s EK Healy Cup were decided in the Everett Partridge Memorial competition at Rio Tinto’s Kestrel mine near Blackwater on July 21, and in the annual Neil Marshall Memorial held the following week at Anglo Coal’s Central colliery, near Middlemount.
Although there is a certain repetitiveness about these competitions — organised around four disciplines relating to theory, underground rescue, fire drill and first aid — there is no doubting participants’ commitment levels. Indeed to say competition is intense is an understatement, and this is reflected in the despairing looks of those who miss out as much as it is in the faces of the winning teams.
“We were a bit down on realisation we had missed out in qualifying for a place in this year’s Healy Cup, but I am very proud of my team and the way they have trained,” Peter Thomas, captain of Rio Tinto’s Kestrel team, said.
“Apart from myself and one other, this was a first-time experience for the other team members — all of whom at various times have given up their rostered days off to hone their rescue skills.
“We were able to draw on three teams that have been formed at Kestrel, and looking to the future most of the fellas who are in their mid-20s have the calibre to maintain the high standards that have now been reached in mines rescue services.
“Yes, we were disappointed. We gave it our best shot, and rest assured we’ll be back.”
Spare a thought too for the Oaky Creek No 1 contingent. Coming to its final assignment the team had emerged as a clear favourite, but then it blew its EK Healy Cup chances with some crucial mistakes during the fire fighting exercise at the Kestrel preliminary.
“We knew we were performing extremely well, so obviously we were very disappointed,” said a sombre faced Dallas Itzstein, vice-captain of MIM’s Oaky Creek No 1 squad and the only female competing in the team events. “The mistakes we made were elementary, and ones we wouldn’t normally make.
“Anyhow, we paid the price — but we were pleased with our overall performance and are now focused on next year’s competition.”
Oaky Creek will still be represented at the EK Healy Cup by the Oaky North team.
There was also jubilation among the qualifying teams. Laurie Dixon, captain of the Moranbah North No 1 team, said: “We thought we might have blown it when we made a major mistake during suiting up for the underground exercise, and I would have to say there was relief all round when it was announced we had qualified.
“You do need physical fitness and strength to be competitive, but the defining factor is mental capability,” said Dixon. After 21 years of competing he said he might give it one more year because the one trophy that has so far eluded him is the Australian title. Then he might look at a coaching role.
“I’ll give it a bit more thought, but vicecaptain Tim Watson has proved he has the nous to take over the reins and I’m only too pleased to hand over,” Dixon said.
Tom Turns, who over the past seven years has led Anglo Coal’s Southern colliery team to several district, state and national titles, said the level of EK Healy Cup competition continued to improve.
“That’s what these competitions are all about,” he said. “Clearly, a high priority impacting directly on our collective responsibilities is to keep developing our skills so that we can effectively respond to situations when our colleagues are in danger.
“Certainly, part of my job as a deputy underground is to ensure we’re able to save somebody in an emergency situation. Let’s face it, people do get into difficulties — and surely each shift must be reassured in knowing their colleagues are there to competently respond to calls for help.
“That’s why we train, and the more competition we have the better we are going to be when there’s a call on us.”
Turns admitted to being disappointed about the media’s apparent lack of interest. He wasn’t alone on that front.
“Regrettably, the only time we rate a mention is when there’s an accident — and then sensationalism takes over,” said Steve Bullough, a veteran who first became involved in mines rescue when he went underground at Wollongong on the NSW south coast in 1976.
Since then he’s competed successfully in district, state and national competitions. But after moving to Queensland 11 years ago, where he is now a deputy at MIM’s Oaky Creek mine, he has taken on more of an administrative role.
“Like all those involved in the running of mines rescue services I have to travel long distances, especially when called on to officiate at the various competitions, and in this area it’s timely to acknowledge the tremendous support we get from mine management,” Bullough said.
More than 350 mine personnel in Queensland have been recruited for mines rescue training organised by the Queensland Mines Rescue Service (QMRS). Formerly a governmentcontrolled instrumentality, the QMRS, which began as the Queensland Mines Rescue Brigade at Ipswich in 1909, is now an independent accredited corporation funded by coal producers.
“We are ultimately responsible for ensuring that, in the event of a mine emergency at any underground coal mine in Queensland, rescue assistance is provided in accordance with the requirements of the affected mine’s rescue agreement,” said QMRS chairman Ray Parkin.
Industry rescue infrastructure includes substations and equipment at each mine site.
“We also have instigated mutual assistance schemes among all the mines which enable us to immediately respond to an emergency,” Parkin said.
“One can argue about the importance of a degree or other academic qualifications, but professional status in mines rescue can only be attained through an apprenticeship and internship experience underground,” said Malcolm Smith, QMRS chief executive officer, and a former manager, mines rescue, with the Ontario Ministry of Labour in Canada.