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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Train hard, fight easy

A truck fire last year caused the Favona gold mine in Waihi to be evacuated. KIT WILSON describes how the evacuation went and the lessons learned.

At 5.18am on Tuesday 17 July 2012 a Komatsu HM300-2 haul truck caught fire as it was travelling fully loaded up the decline at Newmont Waihi Gold’s Favona mine in Waihi. The fire on the right side of the engine bay was not extinguished by the on-board fire suppression system. The driver was able to get a lift to the portal where the stench gas was activated, and all personnel underground proceeded to their closest refuge chambers where they waited for advice/rescue. An emergency was declared.

Mines Rescue pagers were immediately activated and 22 of the 27-member team responded. There were two team members already on shift engaged in their normal duties. They started to prep equipment that would be needed.

Mines Rescue Co-ordinator Peter Lowe checked the underground tag board and conferred with the underground foreman. All underground personnel had been accounted for. They were in three refuge chambers at three different locations, all with radio comms intact. There was no immediate threat to life. Team Captains Dave Oliver and Josh Chapman were appointed and two Mines Rescue teams of six were formed.

“We formed an attack team and a standby team of six personnel, taking care to spread the mix of underground experience, Mines Rescue experience, and leadership skills across the teams,” recalls Lowe.

“A backup team from New Zealand Mines Rescue at Huntly had been alerted and would soon be in transit. They use the same equipment and recently participated in training exercises here in Waihi. The training scenarios were the same as the actual event we were now faced with.”

The rescue teams became a resource for the Incident Management Team, which formed to deal with the event. The IMT had initiated the Rapid Response protocol – a web-based system that allows multiple participants across disciplines, sites and countries to contribute and be kept up to date in real time.

There were still many unknowns. “We knew where all 28 men were, and we had a general understanding of the conditions the team would encounter, but we had no way of knowing exactly what to expect.”

Ventilation fans underground suck air into the mine through the portal. It is distributed via vent bags and secondary fans to areas of the mine currently being worked before being expelled to the surface through a vent shaft and évasé like the one that featured so prominently in coverage of the Pike River mine disaster.

“There was still power to the mine and the fans were working,” says Lowe. “Our concern was that the 11kVA line ran past the area where the burning truck was located, as did the comms link. We had to plan for the possibility of power being cut to the fans and determine as best we could where the smoke from the fire would then travel. We were very aware that a power failure would significantly change our plan of attack. As well as planning how best to evacuate 28 personnel from the three refuge chambers we also had to plan for a series of alternate evacuation and rescue scenarios.”

The attack team entered the underground and eight personnel were evacuated from the refuge chamber at Stockpile 10 in the Favona mine at 8.35am. The same team then returned underground and at 9.08am five miners were evacuated from the 834 level at Trio. Both of these refuge chambers were in clear air. They were still operating on mine air and had not needed to use the self-contained air supply in the refuge chambers.

On returning to the surface Mines Rescue team personnel were rotated and then reentered the mine, rescuing the remaining miners from the refuge chamber at the 908 level in the Trio mine at 11.50am.

The final refuge chamber proved a little more of a challenge, due to smoke still present above the 834 level and the loss of communications. The communication cable had been burnt through at the site of the fire, and this lack of comms provided a planning problem. This factor didn’t have any bearing on the actual rescue, as things went to plan, although, as Dave Oliver comments, “the guys at 908 were certainly pleased to see us”.

The truck fire was allowed to burn out. Lowe says that civilian emergency services had expected to be called to assist with fighting the fire. “Unlike a coal mine, the only thing that can burn in a hard rock mine is the equipment we take underground. Once we knew that all personnel were safe there was no point exposing the Mines Rescue team or anybody else to further risk. We knew that within 24 to 36 hours the fire would burn itself out.”

What no one was prepared for was the intense level of media interest. Josh Chapman says that in hindsight it was obvious that the media, with their only real reference point being Pike River, had expected a more dramatic event spread over a longer time. “I think they were a bit disappointed that it was all over by lunchtime.”

To cater to this demand Dave Oliver and underground miner Steve Sant, who was in one of the refuge chambers, fronted the media next day. They explained in their own words their experience during the fire and subsequent evacuation and rescue.

Debriefs followed in subsequent weeks. Among the learnings that emerged for the Mines Rescue team was the realisation that roster patterns need more consideration when forming both the attack and standby teams.

Oliver comments: “Some of the team were coming to the end of a twelve-hour night shift immediately prior to the event and others had not long gone off shift. If the rescue had become long duration we would have needed multiple teams without the problem of fatigue.”

Lowe also commented that they realised they needed to communicate more quickly with the incident management team. “At the time we were just getting on with the job, with what we are trained to do, but we have learned there is more to it than that. When the prime minister is asking questions of emergency services we need to make sure we have made information available to all agencies at the earliest opportunity.”

Investigations also recommended changes in mine design and operation. The fire cut communications to the staff in refuge chambers. The underground comms system has now been modified to travel in two directions to prevent comms being lost. Air supply to refuge chambers was not compromised even though the fire melted through one of the poly lines, as these lines complete a full circuit.

It was also recommended that a secondary power supply be installed for the main fan, which is located underground. Due to the risk of power to the primary fans being compromised, a standby fan has now been installed on the évasé on the surface.

Not all findings are based on equipment design or modification. Some relates to human behaviour. All staff had provided a phone number to be called in case of an emergency. When these numbers were rung there was a lot of noise from the lockers on the surface – many staff had listed their own mobile phone number as their primary emergency contact.

Peter Lowe summarises the event: “In training you give the guys a scenario and then throw them a curve ball. As the team starts to solve the problem, you throw them another. During this rescue there was an uneasy feeling amongst the Captains and Coordinator. Later they identified that uneasy feeling. There were no curve balls. Everything ran like clockwork – train hard, fight easy.”

KIT WILSON is external affairs coordinator with Newmont Waihi Gold.

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