PK Explosion 04

Together in Tragedy

Senior mine safety officer David Parsons writes about the need for forming partnerships between mine operators and local community emergency planning committees in the case of mine disasters.

In contemporary Australia, mine disasters involving miners trapped underground are not common. However, experience from recent mine disasters in Australia and overseas show that when underground entrapments do occur, they create a vast range of issues for the mine and local community to manage.

The entrapment of miners has the potential to attract substantial domestic and international media attention. The emergency response will therefore include participation of multiple emergency services with specialist support potentially coming from across the globe. Significant issues management and logistical challenges will arise. As a result the participation of local, state and national governments will be required.

For the majority of mines the range and scale of issues are beyond the scope of their internal emergency plan. As a result emergency management arrangements within the jurisdiction in which the mine operates will need to be activated to enable effective co-ordination. Joint pre-planning between the mine operator and the local community’s emergency planning committee will contribute to ensuring the conduct of an effective emergency operation.

The effective response to a mine disaster will involve not only the mining company but the local community where the mine operates and the wider state and national community. The global nature of the mining industry will attract offers of assistance from mining companies across the world. Effective response operations will require the application of both the mine’s emergency response arrangements and those of the jurisdiction in which the mine is located. To achieve this joint planning and preparation between a mine and the local community is essential.

On April 25, 2006, a mine collapse in Beaconsfield, Tasmania, killed one miner and trapped two others approximately 900 metres underground. This disaster attracted dozens of media crews to the town of Beaconsfield and involved emergency services from multiple Australian states and territories (Melick, 2006).

On November 19, 2010, the Pike River coal mine explosion occurred in New Zealand killing 29 miners whose bodies have never been recovered. This disaster involved dozens of media crews arriving in Greymouth and an extended emergency response operation. The management of the disaster involved national and international resources (Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, 2012).

Most recently on February 9, 2014, the Hazelwood open-cut coal mine fire occurred in Victoria. This fire caused significant community disruption and public health issues. The Hazelwood coal mine fire involved an extended emergency operation utilising large numbers of emergency service personnel from multiple Australian states and territories (Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, 2014).

The official reports from both the Pike River mine disaster and the Hazelwood mine fire recommend improving the capacity of mine operators to work effectively with emergency management agencies (Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, 2014; Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, 2012). The combination of complex issues, intense public interest and multiplicity of agencies involved creates the requirement for formal co-ordination arrangements. Each state and territory has legislation to enable this to occur. This legislation also creates Local Emergency Planning Committees at local government level. These committees are responsible for planning for emergency events in their area.

This article recommends actions mine operators should take to build a strong partnership with their Local Emergency Management Committee.

Beaconsfield, Tasmania, Australia - May 15, 2015: On the 25th of April 2006, the Beaconsfied Mine was the site of a Mine Collapse, trapping three miners. The body of one of the miners Larry Knight (44) was recovered the next day. The two other Miners Brant Webb (37) and Todd Russell (34) were rescued after a two week around the clock rescue effort, on the 9th of May 2006, after being trapped nearly one kilometer below the surface.

Beaconsfield, Tasmania, Australia

A literature review was conducted to examine the issues that arise in a mine disaster. The review collated information from a range of government reports, mine disaster books, journal articles and briefings. The mine disasters that were reviewed in detail included Beaconsfield and Hazelwood in Australia, Pike River in New Zealand, Westray in Canada and Copiapó in Chile. This article focuses substantially on the medical and psychological conditions of the miners, the extensive media issues, and the impacts on family and community members.

There is a considerable amount of literature relating to the cause of mine disasters and strategies to mitigate the risk. However, there is substantially less written about the issues in managing the mine disaster response and operation. The many issues identified as a result of this review were categorised into key themes for issues requiring management in a mine disaster response. Each theme is comprised of categories employing terminology common to the emergency management community.

Mine disasters involve two key characteristics meeting the criteria for activation of emergency management arrangements in most Australian jurisdictions. These characteristics are that mine disasters endanger, or threaten to endanger, the safety or health of persons, and that they require a significant and co-ordinated response.

Inquiries from the Pike River and Hazelwood mine disasters found that interaction and cooperation between the emergency services and the mining companies involved was not optimal. Inquiries from both events found the inter-agency problems were due to the lack of a common incident management operating system (Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, 2014; Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, 2012). The lack of this common process meant that sharing of information and critical decision-making was disjointed and dysfunctional. In response to this issue the New Zealand, Victorian and New South Wales governments have initiated requirements for mining companies to apply the Incident Control System in their emergency response processes (Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, 2014; New Zealand Police, 2015; Trade and Investment NSW, 2015). In New Zealand this system is known as the Co-ordinated Incident Management System (CIMS) (New Zealand Government, 2014) while the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council call it the Australian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS).

Recommendation 1: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • Local emergency response arrangements such as location of the community Emergency Operations Centre and requirements of the local police officer who would coordinate the response.
  • Agencies that would be involved in the multi-agency response and their roles. Agencies could include emergency services, disaster medical staff, local government and community social services.

A mine disaster involving miners trapped underground for an extended period will attract a large media contingent to the mine site and the local community. In Chile more than 2000 media camped at the mine site (Franklin, 2010), while the towns of Beaconsfield and Greymouth for Pike River each had more than 60 media crews in attendance to cover the emergency response (Franklin, 2010; Goc & Bainbridge, 2006; Macfie, 2014; Wright, 2012). In Beaconsfield, the media crews obtained campervans for accommodation and parked these along the street adjacent to the mine. The community arranged meals, shelter and hygiene facilities to support the media for the two weeks of the rescue operation. In Greymouth the media crews arrived quickly to the town and booked out most of the accommodation available at hotels in the town. This caused a shortage of accommodation for family members and friends who arrived later.

As the majority of the activity in a mine rescue occurs deep below the ground there is limited opportunity for the media to photograph and film the action. Reporters are required to supply stories for news each day. In Beaconsfield and in Greymouth this resulted in reporters seeking out stories from the community. This hunt for news included shouting drinks in hotels, calling at the homes of miners and rescuers, and offering thousands of dollars to people for talking to them and providing information for stories (Wright, 2012).

The Beaconsfield mine disaster had a very effective media operation. The police officer given the responsibility for managing the media had previously managed the media at the Port Arthur Shooting. The media strategy included establishment of an agency media briefing centre, regular media briefings by the Police, Mayor and Mine Manager. Recommendation 2: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • Which agency would establish and co-ordinate a multi-agency media information centre?
  • Which agencies would be in the combined multi-agency media information centre?
  • What location would be used for large media briefings?
  • How would media crews seeking information within the community be managed?

Once miners are located and access is gained to them, consideration needs to be given to the physical and psychological injuries they may have sustained. Initial access may only be a hole drilled through to the miners which becomes a lifeline until release. Physical issues may include injuries and the effects of having had little to eat or drink for a prolonged period. Professional health advice will be required to avoid health risks from a sudden surge of too much food and to maintain an appropriate diet during a delayed release from entrapment (Franklin, 2010; Wright, 2012).

Miners may also have experienced isolation from sound and light stimulation. As a result the miners may have been subject to audio and visual hallucinations created by the brain in response to the isolation. The lack of natural light may result in a disruption to the miner’s circadian rhythm and the resultant loss of the ability to judge time periods. In the Chile mine disaster, specialists were used from NASA and the United States Navy to provide advice on managing the psychological impacts of entrapment and isolation (Franklin, 2010).

Once miners are located they are typically provided contact with their family initially by notes and later by audio-visual connection. This contact with the family is closely monitored by mental health professionals who are tasked with the management of the psychological condition of the miners (Franklin, 2010; Kowalski-Trakofler & Vaught 2012; Wright, 2012).

Recommendation 3: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • Which agencies can provide the specialist medical advice required?
  • Which agencies can provide the specialist psychological advice required?
  • Where this specialist advice is located and how long it would take to arrive?

Family members of miners may not only be from the local community, but also communities dispersed across the country and the globe. Miners’ families will come to a mine seeking to be close to their loved one who is trapped. In Pike River this resulted in more than four hundred family members arriving in Greymouth.

These family members had to be accommodated, supported and kept informed. In Greymouth, Air New Zealand staff trained to support customer families in an aircraft disaster were successfully utilised to provide support to the families of miners. Family members will need a location to come together each day while they await information. This facility will need to provide privacy, refreshments and be large enough for the number of relatives and support workers that may be expected. International families will arrive and this could result in foreign embassies being involved in providing support to their residents.

At the Pike River disaster, buses were arranged to transport family members up to the mine site. Managing needs of families is a significant task encompassing everything from accommodation, catering, counselling, transportation, access, briefings, security and memorial planning (Ewen, 2014; McEntyre, 2011; Maunder, 2012; Kowalski-Trakofler & Vaught, 2012; Wright, 2012).

Recommendation 4: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • What surge accommodation is available locally for the families of miners?
  • What location could be used for a family meeting and briefing centre?
  • Which agency will manage family privacy and security?
  • Which agency will provide counselling support for family members?
  • Which agency will provide counselling services for the local community and special groups, such as schools?

For rural and regional communities impacted by a mining disaster the logistic services required to support a large and long running emergency response will be significant. The closest town to a mine site will be affected by the convergence of personnel and equipment. Personnel will include families, media and emergency services. The rescue operation will also involve additional equipment being brought to the rescue site.

The national and possibly global response may result in the use of aircraft to transport equipment to the scene quickly. Equipment and personnel will require transport. Many rural towns have mobile telephone systems without the capacity to cope with the surge of many hundreds of people with mobile telephones and wireless data needs. Other services that may be required to support various parts of the emergency operation will include security, transportation, catering and temporary accommodation (West Virginia Office of Miners Health, 2008; Wright, 2012; Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, 2012; Wright, 2012).

Recommendation 5: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • Which agencies can assist with logistical tasks to support the rescue operation and family support, e.g. catering, accommodation, transport?
  • Which agencies can provide transport vehicles?
  • What are the arrangements for increasing mobile telephone cell capacity?
  • What size of aircraft can use local airstrips?


A mine disaster resulting in death may result in a memorial being created to remember the miners in perpetuity. In the Pike River mine disaster, multiple memorial services PLANNING were conducted and a number of memorials were built. The memorial services were attended by thousands of people including the Prime Minister (Ewen, 2014; Maunder, 2012; Wright, 2012).

Recommendation 6: Mine operators should work with their Local Emergency Planning Committee to gain an understanding of:

  • Which agencies would be involved in, and who would lead the planning for memorial services for thousands of people?
  • Which agencies would be involved in building a memorial?

Although a mine operator will provide the initial response to a mine disaster, additional agencies such as emergency services, health specialists, psychosocial support agencies and local government will join the operation. Mine disasters can involve all levels of government due to the international nature of the industry, both in terms of the country of origin of the workforce, company ownership and the possible requirement for a global sourcing of expertise and equipment.

Effective emergency management depends significantly on the relationships that exist between those involved (Ewen, 2014; Kowalski-Trakofler & Vaught, 2010; New Zealand Police, 2015; State Emergency Management Committee, 2015; Westray Public Mine Inquiry, 1997).

Recommendation 7: Mine operators can take a number of actions to establish critical relationships with their Local Emergency Planning Committee, including:

  • Arrange a tour of the mine for members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee;
  • Review the mine’s incident plan with the Local Emergency Planning Committee;
  • Explain the mine’s incident response capability and capacity to the Local Emergency Planning Committee;
  • Explain the mine’s incident management structure to the Local Emergency Planning Committee;
  • Introduce the mine’s Incident Controller to the Local Emergency Planning Committee; and
  • Conduct a discussion exercise involving a long duration underground rescue with the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The development of a strong partnership and mutual understanding between the mine operator and the Local Emergency Planning Committee is essential for an effective response operation. The partnership and understanding will ensure each group is aware of the others capabilities, responsibilities, and develop the relationships required for effective co-operation. The recommendations proposed in this article are designed to assist the process.


David is a Senior Mine Safety Officer, specialising in emergency management, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Emergency and Disaster Management.

David is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Emergency Services and the Business Continuity Institute. He has served as a Regional Emergency Management Officer in NSW, the Manager of Sydney Water’s Security and Emergency Management Program, and a member of the Australian Government’s Critical Infrastructure Advisory Council and Resilience Expert Advisory Group.

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