April 2017

Managing major emergencies in coalmines

  • By David Carey MAusIMM, CEO, Queensland Mines Rescue Service

A discussion of emergency management systems in relation to underground coalmines

This is an excerpt from a paper that was presented at Minesafe International 2017, which was held in Perth from 1-2 May. 

Underground coalmine emergencies can be complex events that are difficult to analyse and respond to in a timely manner. This is due to the isolated environment in which they may occur, their potentially violent nature that may result in damage to mine infrastructure and installed monitoring systems, and the resultant impact on people in the vicinity.

The information that would normally be available to assist in making decisions about the control of an event may be disrupted. Well-installed monitoring systems have been shown by Brady et al (2015) to have a greater propensity for event survival than previously expected and may continue to provide information. However, it is necessary that this information is assessed by appropriate people for its validity before being utilised in decision-making. Real-time monitoring has range limitations when operating in the gas levels produced in explosion and major fire environments, while tube bundle systems may be damaged but still functioning, and thus producing information, but not necessarily from the same locations as they did before the event. The need for appropriate technical support for an incident controller is a critical early step in managing a mine event.

The logistical and emotional challenges of dealing with potentially lost colleagues and conflicting demands for information from company representatives, government officials, the media and family members will challenge the most experienced and practiced of managers, let alone those who may find themselves thrust into such a situation. For those in the role of incident controllers, the greater the level of familiarity with an event management process and awareness of the non-technical issues that inhibit the effective implementation of the control system, the greater the chance that the event will be successfully managed.

Control of an emergency requires a strong and directive approach. Decisions – often based on partial information – need to be made to allow an event to progress to resolution. Hazards that exist must be recognised and information obtained to determine if an acceptable level of control exists to deploy recovery resources. Objectives set to progress the event must keep in mind the limitations of information and the safety of the emergency response resources. Under Australian legislation, control will also remain with the mine, and this is not the normal job of the people to whom this responsibility will fall. While they will generally have management experience, rarely will they be experienced in managing the information and emotional overload presented by an emergency event. A structured process of control for the event that has been trained and is adequately resourced will rapidly become essential in maintaining an effective event response.

An outcome from the Warden’s Inquiry into the 1994 Moura No 2 mine disaster, the last major coal disaster in Queensland, is that emergency procedures are exercised at each mine on a systematic basis, the minimum requirement being on an annual basis for each mine. Under the Queensland government recognised standard that guides the conduct of these exercises, one mine is chosen to host the Level 1 emergency exercise. The objectives are to test the mine’s emergency response system, test the ability of external services to administer assistance and provide a focal point for emergency preparedness in the state. These Level 1 events have now been conducted 18 times, and Fuller (2014) has found that on many occasions, the results have indicated that mine managers and their supporting teams have struggled to make timely and effective decisions.

Mine emergency management system

Recommendations in the 2003 Queensland Government Mine Emergency Level 1 report (Queensland Government, 2003) highlighted a need to establish a clear organisational structure for the management of an emergency, including information gathering techniques, decision-making processes and communication mechanisms. These are available within professional emergency services organisations and should be reviewed and considered for adaptation to mining.

The Queensland Mines Rescue Service (QMRS) has conducted mine emergency management system (MEMS) training for coal mine operators since 2005. MEMS was developed from the Australasian Inter-agency Incident Management System – Incident Control System (AIIMS-ICS) with adaptations relevant to mining legislation, the complications of an underground mine environment and mining personnel. This system provides a central decision-making authority, a process to conduct necessary planning and scenario evaluation, and management of resources for action implementation. To improve decision-making, several other factors need consideration such as communication, situational awareness, leadership and teamwork, and stress and fatigue management. In addition to setting a structure for the management of the emergency, the training also touches on the psychology of decision-making, provides guides to communicating internally to those involved in the event and family, planning for resourcing extended duration events and dealing with the media. The course is delivered via scenario-based, hands-on teaching methods over four days (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Mine emergency management system (MEMS) training course.

While most mines have undertaken the initial training for key personnel in the incident control system, a repeated finding from simulation events has been an ineffective implementation of the system once subjected to the pressure environment of a mine emergency.

The essential component of MEMS is the one person who is in control and who is responsible for managing the entire incident: the incident controller. In the initial stages of an emergency, this person may be the site supervisor at the immediate location of the emergency. That person will determine the response to the event (planning), organise the actions to be undertaken to bring the event under control or remove persons to a place of safety (operations) and coordinate the gathering of required resources to deal with the event (logistics). As the size and complexity of an event grows, the incident controller may need to delegate a number of these functions to others to allow adequate focus and ensure leadership in each area (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Mine emergency management system (MEMS) functional roles.

Similarly, the role of incident controller may be subsequently assumed by more senior mine officials as the scale of the event grows. Formal handover of leadership to more senior personnel in the three aforementioned functional areas will also occur. Each of these areas will need to be adequately resourced with people possessing the appropriate skills to analyse data, develop plans, implement action plans and obtain required resources if the incident controller is to be successful.

As such, MEMS is fully scalable to the event at hand, expanding as additional resources are required to cope with the increasing scale of an event. Similarly, resourcing can be reduced as an event is brought under control and the objective becomes returning the mine to operation. Simulation events have highlighted the need to keep the initial incident controller engaged, either in the operations team or as part of the planning team generally, once relieved of the direct responsibility for control of the event. The sense of felt responsibility of this person can be turned to a negative emotion and actions if they are excluded as the management of the event grows. This led to dysfunctional information sharing during the Level 1 event conducted in 2015 (Queensland Government, 2015).

Moving an event forward requires the setting of objectives to achieve ‘what is important now’. Initial objectives may relate to understanding the nature and scale of the event. As the event progresses, the objective of ‘what is important to achieve now’ will change. This may involve aiding affected people to escape to a place of safety or taking steps necessary in bringing the event under control. Once the incident control team has set an objective, strategies to achieve the objective will need to be developed. This is the role of the planning team as multiple options may exist that will need evaluation to determine the most appropriate option. If this activity is allowed to occur within the incident control team, as has been the case in a number of the Level 1 event simulations, the process of resolving the event is often delayed. As the incident controller and their delegated functional leaders are often the people responsible and normally in control of the mine, it requires a disciplined commitment to the process to avoid this failing.

Strategies determine how an objective will be achieved. They are a broad plan of action to achieve the objective. Tactics are the application of resources to implement the strategy plan. MEMS requires documenting the current objective, along with the strategies to be implemented and the required resources, into an incident action plan (IAP) that must be approved by the incident controller prior to implementation. This is a critical part of the MEMS process and helps to track the development and control of the event. As the incident develops, the current objective and required strategies will change, leading to a new IAP. Actions that remain incomplete need to be tracked and their ongoing relevance assessed as the event progresses. Recording event information and actions builds up an event record, an event timeline and a status report that becomes a useful communication tool for those requesting information, such as government officials and the media, as well as becoming a historical record of the event for subsequent investigations.

Once an IAP is approved, the leaders of the planning, operations and logistics groups take the plan to guide the activities of their group to develop the tactical plans required to progress the IAP. Each group interacts to determine what each requires from or needs to do for the other groups. Having a single plan to guide the immediate activities creates a unity of purpose that moves everyone towards a common goal. It also provides the means of communication as roles are handed over to those coming into roles for an extended emergency event.


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Mine re-entry assessment system

A recommendation from the inquiry into the Moura No 2 mine disaster was for industry to develop an effective computer-based emergency decision support system for incident management and training. Knowledge of the conditions in a mine after an incident are essential in deciding what strategies are appropriate, such as whether or not to deploy mines rescue teams, as part of the incident recovery process. Applying this knowledge in a structured manner to the assessment and acceptability of the risks likely to be faced by those teams during rescue activities is an onerous task incumbent upon the person controlling the incident response.

From 2008, the Queensland and New South Wales Mines Rescue Services, in association with industry representatives, conducted risk assessments relating to mines rescue operational mine re-entry and mine explosibility hazards. From these came the Mines Rescue Operational Guidelines in 2010. The following year, as a result of an industry-funded ACARP research project, the prototype information management software MRAS (mine re-entry assessment system) was implemented to support the decision-making process to deploy rescue resources in accordance with the operational guidelines.

MRAS assists people to make considered decisions; it does not make decisions for them. When fully set up, it allows the relevant information that already exists within a mine’s safety management system to be accessed and considered rapidly within the pressured environment of an emergency. Secondly, the incident-specific questions contained within MRAS focus the incident control team on gathering and assessing information relevant to the incident as it progresses.

At any time during the event, the control team can generate reports to assess what information is currently known and what still needs to be gathered. It can generate a running log of the status of the incident and can provide situation update emails to selected people from within the program. As gas data is obtained and analysed by appropriate computer systems, this information can be imported into MRAS for the assessment of the explosibility risk.

MRAS provides a process to:

  • Consider the adequacy of the information available upon which decisions have to be made.
  • Consider and acknowledge the explosibility hazards of the environments within which a mines rescue team will need to work.
  • Acknowledge and formally authorise the entry of teams into (or for teams to remain within) a mine either during or after an incident occurring. This same process should be worked through in deciding if mine personnel should remain underground as part of a response strategy in dealing with a developing emergency.

In 2016, QMRS modified its MEMS training course, in association with a mining company that operates both surface and underground coal mining operations, to deliver a unified approach to mine emergency management that is suitable to either class of operation. The experience gained from this activity would indicate that with very little modification to the training scenarios utilised, the MEMS process could be readily delivered to non-coal mining operations that are either surface or underground mines.

Conclusion

The application of MEMS is just as likely to encounter the same general problems as other incident management systems. As discussed by Fuller (2014), research on AIIMS-ICS (upon which MEMS is based) suggests that without comprehensive training and development of interpersonal and inter-agency relationships, these systems are likely to fail. In a coalmine environment, there is a lesser need for inter-agency interactions due to the unique nature of coal mining. However, there is still a need to deal with mines rescue, mines inspectorate and workforce representatives as well as manage family and media requirements. In the 2015 Level 1 event simulation, the arrival of the mines inspectorate and the industry safety representative and their request to be brought up to speed about the progress of the simulated event brought the incident management process to a halt while all resources focused on this request.

While the initial training course provides a familiarity with the process, the absence of routine and effective simulation practice and adequate refresher training allows this familiarity to decline and has often led to the process breaking down, either in a real or simulated event. In addition, there is a need for the development of the interpersonal skills necessary to coordinate a group process and deal with the conflicting needs of external agencies. Only through repeated training in the process prior to the need to apply such skills in reality will the system be able to be successfully applied to emergency management.

While MRAS has been available to the industry since 2011, only QMRS has adopted it into routine use for rescue exercise planning, competition preparation and emergency event management. As a Microsoft Access-based program, a number of mines have been reluctant to integrate it into their existing suite of risk management software. QMRS is working with a number of mines and agencies (Simtars, NIOSH) to increase the user acceptance of this program and its ability to be applied to more routine mine situations.

Utilisation of MEMS processes for all levels of emergency simulations by all mines, rather than just the mine that conducts the Level 1 event, will:

  • grow confidence in the system processes and trust in the people who will be managing an event
  • improve communication skills and processes, and improve decision-making capabilities through a trained awareness of the progressing steps of an emergency.

Opportunities to integrate the processes of emergency management into operational activities and to recognise the commonalities that exist with other major routine activities (such as major maintenance shutdowns or equipment relocations) can provide an increased level of confidence should it be necessary to manage an emergency event. Developing plans, scoping and sourcing resources and implementing agreed plans are common to project and emergency management. On many occasions, it has appeared to be a lack of familiarity with, and confidence in, the process that has triggered delays in the resolution of an event rather than a defect in the process itself.

While QMRS continues to improve the quality and applicability of the training by integrating non-technical skills awareness into the course, opportunities to increase familiarity with the process appear to offer the greatest benefit in the short term.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to acknowledge the Chairman of QMRS, Mick Madden, for his encouragement and approval to prepare this paper and his invaluable review service. It is also appropriate to acknowledge the commitment of QMRS Operations Managers Mark Freeman and Ray Smith in delivering the training course of MEMS to the Queensland coal industry.

References

Brady D, Nugent G, Cliff D, Tonegato S, Mason P, Devlin S, 2015. Emergency response: mine entry data management – extension, ACARP report 19010.

Fuller R, 2014. Exploring non-technical issues that impact on incident management team decision-making at underground coal mining incidents; and the development of a non-technical issues taxonomy, PhD thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Queensland Government, 2003. Queensland Level 1 Emergency Exercise [online]. Available from: publications.qld.gov.au/dataset/queensland-level-1-mine-emergency-exercise-reports

Queensland Government, 2015. Queensland Level 1 Emergency Exercise [online]. Available from: publications.qld.gov.au/dataset/queensland-level-1-mine-emergency-exercise-reports

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