The Future of Mines Rescue in Australia

Whilst mine management carry the primary responsibility to respond to an emergency, mines rescue teams will have an increasingly important role for underground coal mines going forward Professor David Cliff reports.

Following recent disasters in New Zealand and the United State some people have raised the question, “What is the future of mines rescue in Australia?” The inability to re-enter Pike River Mine to rescue the workers raised the question whether in such circumstances mines rescue personnel would ever be able to carry such a rescue.

This is the wrong question. Whilst mine management carry the primary responsibility to respond to an emergency, mines rescue will have an increasingly important role for underground coal mines going forward. Mine emergencies in Australia are rare, with on average only one forced evacuation a year. It is quite possible for mining personnel to work their entire life without experiencing an emergency. The number of people in industry with experience in emergency situations is consequently decreasing and in the rare event that an emergency should occur at a mine, the specialist expertise and experience in dealing with emergencies will more likely be provided by mines rescue. This is in addition to their role in providing training, specialised equipment and technical support.

The recently released guidelines for mine re-entry clearly establish guidance on what is required for mines rescue to re-enter a mine in an emergency. Re-entry can occur but it requires mines to ensure that they can supply the information required to make proper decisions. Sadly many mines cannot currently do this. The guidelines provide a basis for mines to assess the adequacy of their current information systems and identify room for improvement.


Much was made in the media over the inability of rescue teams to re-enter Pike River Mine to rescue the trapped miners. Many armchair experts talked about “windows of opportunity”, and how they knew it was safe to re-enter the mine. The second and subsequent explosions at the mine vindicated the decision by those in charge not to allow rescuers to enter the mine. The situation confronting mine management and the external rescue agencies after the first explosion was: two miners escaped the mine badly affected by the products of the explosion, no data to indicate what was happening in the mine, no mine ventilation, smoke issuing from the top of the fan shaft. Due to the topography of the surface above the mine it took five hours to get the first gas samples from the top of the fan shaft. Air was naturally in-taking via the stone drift and the slimline shaft. There was no evidence of any life within the mine. The mine had a significant methane make. Despite herculean efforts it took four days to drill the first borehole into the mine – due to the logistical nightmare of getting the drilling equipment to the top of the mountain by helicopter, and operating it under very difficult conditions.

Brady and Cliff (2012) have amply demonstrated that a second explosion can occur at any time, if there is a source of methane and an ignition source. He tabulated examples from the recent past where second and subsequent explosions have occurred in underground coal mines.

Table : Examples of times between explosions

Period Between Explosions


0 – 5 mins

Castle Gate No. 2 Mine

Willow Creek

5 -10 mins

Willow Creek

10 – 20 mins

Castle Gate No. 2 Mine

Robena No. 3

Eccles Nos 5 and 6

20 – 30 mins

Willow Creek

30 – 60 mins

Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine

1 – 3 hrs

Consol No.9 Mine

Consol No.9 Mine

Sayreton No. 2 Mine

3 – 6 hrs

Bilsthorpe Collier

Raspadskaya Mine

Consol No.9 Mine

6 – 12 hrs

Pond Creek No. 1 Mine

Consol No.9 Mine

12 – 24 hrs

Consol No.9 Mine

Consol No.9 Mine

1 – 2 days

Consol No.9 Mine

2 – 3 days

Scotia Mine

Moura No. 2

Pike River Mine

Pike River Mine

3+ days

Consol No.9 Mine

Pike River Mine

This highlights the need to make decisions based upon accurate information and for the decision makers to have the skills and experience to be able to make effective decisions.


Contrary to popular belief it is not impossible to have enough information to enable a decision on mine re-entry or rescue to be made. Research undertaken jointly by the Queensland Mines Rescue Service, the New South Wales Mines Rescue Service, SIMTARS and MISHC over the past four years has developed a guideline to assist in making the decision to re-enter the mine an objective process (Nugent et al, 2011). This guideline was derived from a detailed risk assessment of the issues facing rescue teams attempting re-entry to a mine after an incident. The participants in the risk assessment identified the information requirements (see figure 1 below). The bulk of the information required in an emergency should be routinely available, delivered by the mines various information systems. The research was able to characterise the information into sources – automatic and manual, temporal – pre-existing and post incident and relating to potential types of incidents such as explosions or management systems such as atmospheric monitoring or ventilation. Figure 2 outlines the links between the various information sources and requirements. It also identifies the information flow that allows for the objective development of the permit to re-enter through the recognition of what is known, what needs to be known and what can be ignored.


The last two categories are decided by the incident management team. The decision to re-enter a mine must be made by the incident controller based upon all available information and experience not by a computer. The guideline has created a series of checklists that assist a mine in establishing the adequacy of the various information systems operating at the mine. The most recent phase of the research has taken the paper based checklists and developed them into a prototype computer based system. This system has been developed in Microsoft Access.

The guideline is available in both hard copy and as a computer based system. It is freely available from ACARP or the principal author. Feedback on the guideline and the computer program are welcome. It is hoped that commercial providers of information systems will embody the processes identified in the prototype when developing their systems for mines. The Queensland and New South Mines Rescue Services can provide assistance in implementing these guidelines.

Decision making

Equally important to having the information is having the capacity to make appropriate decisions in a reasonable timeframe. Decision making in emergencies is normally based upon naturalistic decision making or similar processes – i.e. the decision maker attempts to map the current circumstances to similar circumstance he has experienced and based upon that mapping makes the appropriate decisions. This assumes that the decision makers have the necessary and relevant experience to be able to make appropriate decisions. Evacuations in Australian underground coal mines, other than for practice, occur very rarely – typically only one mine a year has had to evacuate in recent times. Similarly serious fires, explosions etc. are very rare. It is thus quite likely that modern mine professionals may work their entire life without experiencing such an event. The pool of expertise of people who have dealt with emergencies is also dwindling.

Decision making is not simply an exercise in logic but also needs to deal with the emotions and stress that inevitably accompany such an incident. The impact of stress on IMT was clearly evident in the recent disasters at Upper Big Branch and Pike River. At Pike River the author personally witnessed the enormous pressure that the IMT were placed under to re-enter the mine to rescue those trapped. Coping with these issues requires specialist skills that are not generally part of a normal mine professional’s education. This again is where the mines rescue services can have a role. They provide specialist training in emergency management – for example through the Coal Mines Qualifications Board Course in NSW and the MEMS course in Queensland. More than this, by involving mines rescue service personnel in the incident management teams (IMT), more effective IMT processes can be facilitated. Because the rescue service personnel do have experience in rescue and re-entry, they can add a valuable dimension and rigour to the IMT. Mines Rescue Services by their very nature are collectors of information and expertise in incident management. In addition because they regularly involved in IMT exercises at mines they are familiar with their operation and can ensure that the IMT process at the mine is fully and effectively implemented. Experience gained from the level one emergency response training exercises in Queensland clearly demonstrates the value of a process-checker role. The exercises have also highlighted issues relating to stress, fatigue and unfamiliarity with incident management roles and processes.

This training and support is in addition to the ongoing vital role the rescue services provide in training mines rescue team members.

Specialist resources

The final area where mines rescue services can provide a vital role in mine emergencies is in the provision of specialist equipment. Good examples of this are the GAG inertisation system in Queensland and the Mine Shield in NSW. Because of the low probability of an incident occurring at a particular mine it makes sense to share the cost of specialist equipment. It also ensures that this equipment is properly maintained and readily available in an incident. Other potential specialist equipment could include:

  • Special low density foam and void filler generators for filling voids and blocking airflows. This facilitates the remote control of fires and limits the ingress of air into unwanted areas.
  • Special fire suppressants and sealants.
  • Specialist breathing apparatus.
  • Man riding cages and winches for deploying into large diameter boreholes or ventilation shafts such as was used in Chile.
  • Special investigation tools such as borehole cameras, cavity scanning devices and emergency communications systems.
  • Satellite communications systems to augment existing mine systems. In an emergency standard communications channels often get overloaded.
  • Additional gas monitoring equipment such as rolls of tubing, water traps etc. to connect to boreholes, stainless steel pipe for use in boreholes, mobile monitoring laboratories.

Thus in my view mines rescue services are more relevant today than they have ever been. Underground coal mining is getting more complex and the scale of mines is increasing with fewer workers. Incidents that occur at these mines are going to provide challenges that may not been faced previously. A coordinated emergency response capability that enhances each individual mine’s capacity is the only way to go forward.


Professor David Cliff
Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre
Sustainable Minerals Institute
University of Queensland

David Cliff is Professor of Occupational Health and Safety in Mining and Director of the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre at The University of Queensland. His primary role is providing education, applied research and consulting in health and safety in the mining and minerals processing industry. He has been at MISHC over 11 years.

Previously David was the Safety and Health Adviser to the Queensland Mining Council, and prior to that Manager of Mining Research at the Safety In Mines Testing and Research Station. In these capacities he has provided expert assistance in the areas of health and safety to the mining industry for over 19 years. He has particular expertise in emergency preparedness, gas analysis, spontaneous combustion, fires and explosions.  In recent times he has also devoted a lot of energy to fitness for duty issues particularly fatigue management.  He has been a member of the organising committee for the level one emergency exercises in Queensland underground coal mines since their inception in 1998. He has also attended or provided assistance in over 30 incidents at mines.

He presents MINE7041 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems as part of the Post Graduate education program at MISHC.

David has been involved in providing assistance in over 30 underground mining incidents including assisting in the investigation of the Moura No.2 mine disaster and more recently assisting the Police and Department of Labour in investigating the cause of the explosions at Pike River in New Zealand.

He is part of a working party that has been developing guidance for mine re-entry since 2008. This working party draws membership from the Queensland and NSW Mines Rescue Services as well as SIMTARS and Coal Mines Technical Services. David is also currently a member of the National Academies Committee on Mine Safety: Essential Components of Self-Escape.

David has published widely over a range of OHS topics.

Brady D, and Cliff D, 2012.OPPORTUNITY FOR RE ENTRY INTO A COAL MINE IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING AN EXPLOSION, COAL 2012, University of Wollongong and the AUSIMM, Wollongong, NSW.

Nugent, G, Devlin S, Cliff D, and Brady D, 2011. EMERGENCY RESPONSE: MINE ENTRY DATA MANAGEMENT, Australian Coal Association Research Report C19010. Australian Coal Association, Brisbane, Queensland.



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