Queensland Open Cut Mines Rescue Service – A Story of Success
A positive reflection by George Robotham from www.ohschange.com.au
My first safety job in the mining industry was at Utah Development Company, Blackwater open-cut coal mine. One of my jobs was to train the fire / rescue squad. In those days Utah was the dominant force in the Qld. coal mining industry having 6 open-cut coal mines. Utah later became BHP-Coal and later still B.M.A. It was decided to have a mines rescue competition between the Utah mines at Peak Downs mine. I trained the Blackwater team and at the last minute participated as a team member when someone else withdrew because of illness.
Image source and more info on QLD Mines Rescue: http://www.qmrsl.com.au/
After a lot of hard work the Blackwater team won the competition and the grog flowed extremely freely. I am thinking this was about 1977 and I was 23.I flew back to Blackwater in a light plane and was unwell. For many years my manager Ken Foots reminded me of this when we used to attend mines rescue competitions together.
I took about 15 members of the fire / rescue squad to Brisbane for an improvised rescue course with the State Emergency Service. A few blokes put massive grog bills on the company account at the motel they were staying at. The Mine Manager was not amused.
There are a number of likely fire / rescue situations on an open cut mine. I used to dread the day there would be a fire in the confined space of the tub or revolving frame of a dragline with people trapped inside. I suspected I would not expose fire / rescue team members to the risks and would have to leave those trapped to their fate.
Even though I was employed in an open-cut mine I used to train with the underground mines rescue brigade. In those days you had to make a declaration that you had no smoking or lighting materials on your person before you went into an underground coal mine. You were also subject of a search. With the nature of the mines rescue training we often got into areas of the mines that people did not normally occupy. There was one particular known gassy mine where we used to see cigarette butts on the floor of the cut throughs.
There was an underground gas explosion at one Blackwater mine that resulted in 2 men being killed. I ended up being one of the blokes manning the fresh air base and was quietly crapping myself in case I had to go underground.
I later moved to a safety position at Utah Norwich Park, open cut coal mine where I had about 20 fire / rescue squad members to train and lead. The blokes were referred to as the Robotham Raiders, Weekend Warriors and the Cut Lunch Commandos. There was very little management support for the fire / rescue squad and it was quite a challenge to maintain their motivation.
The only time at Norwich Park where I had to use breathing apparatus in anger was to extinguish a fire in a tunnel at the washplant.
Somewhere along the way I took the Norwich Park team to the annual open cut mines rescue competition at Moura mine. It was exceptionally poorly organised and the exercises were neither realistic nor challenging. I remember one exercise where a circle was drawn on the ground and we had to imagine it was a pit and we had to describe how we would get a person out of the bottom of the pit. This so-called exercise drew particular criticism.
The next year I ended up with the job of organising the Qld Open-Cut Mines Rescue Competition that had grown to a 12 team’s competition. A N.S.W. team competed for the first time and it was the first competition to have a night exercise. I put many hours into planning for the event and everything fell into place on the day. The Qld Mining Journal published a glowing report on the competition and said it restored credibility to the mines rescue service (After the disaster at Moura the year before) Later I was to discover the utility of project planning software in planning such events. After the Moura disaster I had a real pit to rescue someone from rather than a make believe one.
An open-cut mines rescue committee was formed, spearheaded by Utah, Saraji, Safety Adviser, Rob Smith. The senior safety people at the various open-cut coal mines were members of the committee. The committee developed a training manual, advised on training, developed standards and oversaw the conduct of the annual competition. All effort was voluntary and the committee was quite a success.
The boss of the N.S.W. Volunteer Rescue Service and ex-head of the N.S.W. Police Rescue Service, Ray Tyson was our patron, adviser and trainer. A fantastic bloke, extremely knowledgeable and lived and breathed rescue.
The facilities of the underground mines rescue service and the Qld Fire Brigade were used for breathing apparatus training in irrespirable atmospheres.
Somewhere along the line I ended up with the job of Chef Assessor at an annual competition. I had a few protests I had to adjudicate on, the serious nature of the inter team rivalry was emphasised. I was an assessor at a rescue competition at Tarong mine and that was a very well organised competition.
All members of the fire / rescue squads were volunteers who received no additional monies for participation. Their motivation was helping others. At some mines there was very little management support for the fire / rescue squads and in some cases refusal to give members time to train. The members were to be commended for maintaining their commitment in the face of this lack of support.
It is many years since I have had dealings with fire and rescue matters in Qld. coal mines but I know some excellent work was done in the past.