Practice makes perfect
With remote Australian mine sites often long distances from professional emergency services, on-site emergency response crews need to feel confident handling just about any type of crisis. The Mining Emergency Response Competition (MERC) held annually in Perth helps them hone their skills and get prepared for a range of scenarios.
In a public park near the centre of Western Australia capital Perth, a jet aircraft is on fire. Flames are spouting from the plane’s port-side engine. With an explosion seemingly imminent, an emergency response crew is doing its best to contain the blaze.
It’s a dramatic and alarming scene, but while the emergency crew and flames are real, you won’t hear about the fire in the news. The scenario has been staged as part of the Mining Emergency Response Competition, or MERC – an annual contest aimed at improving the skills of emergency response crews working at Australian mine sites. As well as extinguishing aircraft fires, competing teams in the annual three-day event can be called on to deal with anything from simulated chemical spills and building fires to horrific disaster casualties.
“We try to make the scenarios as realistic as possible, and so they’re based on events that have been reported to the local Department of Mines and Petroleum,” says Jen Pearce, one of the founders of the competition. “In the past, we have simulated everything from road crashes in dark, stormy environments to crush injuries from heavy machinery, and vehicles that have toppled over highwalls.”
While it might sound gruesome, MERC plays a vital role in improving safety and incident preparedness. Mining in Australia is often conducted at extremely remote locations, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from major centres. With professional emergency services such as the fire brigade and ambulance service often many hours’ drive away, mine operators address the risk of accidents by having trained professional and volunteer emergency response teams on site. “MERC is aimed at giving these individuals the opportunity to train and hone their skills in a safe, controlled and realistic way so that if they’re confronted by a real situation they are confident in their response,” Pearce says.
The first MERC competition was held seven years ago when the critical-services company PWR and first-aid services firm Red Earth Health Solutions realized a forum was needed in the Perth area for the nation’s mine-site emergency response crews to come together, share knowledge and train.
From humble beginnings in 2010, the competition has grown to host 300 participants annually, including competitors, volunteers and sponsors. Held close to Perth’s central business district in Langley Park, the event attracts thousands of onlookers for the two-day competition stage. Competitors come both from Western Australia, where MERC is staged, and the rest of the country, taking in operations including Argyle Diamonds, Rio Tinto Iron Ore, FMG, BHP Nickel West, Newmont Boddington Gold and Synergy. Pearce says there has also been interest from overseas mining operations that are keen on viewing the event and possibly taking part in future competitions.
PWR general manager Nick Groen says the event provides benefits in a range of areas. “The training aspect is imperative, but being able to test your skills in a controlled and safe environment is also very important,” he says.
“A lot of these teams don’t get that opportunity to do so on a regular basis. And being able to network and see how other companies and other teams respond in similar situations and be able to learn from one another in that environment is imperative.”
Each of the 12 teams competing at a MERC event comes from a different company and consists of six competitors, a reserve and a manager. The teams compete across seven disciplines over the two competition days – road crash rescue, vertical rescue, emergency response readiness, confined space rescue, firefighting, hazardous materials and first aid. Volunteer judges assess the practical and applied knowledge of each team, and winners are then selected for each event and for the overall competition. Cash prizes are donated to charities on behalf of the victors.
Pearce explains that as well as providing emergency services at the mine site, emergency response teams are also frequently called on to assist off-site in the case of things like motor vehicle accidents, meaning the skills they are honing at MERC help the wider community.
Richard Crawford, the emergency services and security supervisor at Fortescue Metals Group’s Christmas Creek operation in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, is also chief adjudicator for MERC. He oversees all events and is particularly involved in the vertical rescue scenarios. “It really is amazing how the skills of rescue volunteers vary between sites and team members,” he says. “For the vertical rescue challenge, there’s no point creating an overly complicated solution when a standard 2:1 haulage system with an in-line mechanical advantage can be used.”
Crawford says competitors go back to work with improved knowledge and team spirit. “Camaraderie is right at the heart of mines rescue, and you can absolutely see this at MERC,” he says. “It’s then transferred back to site, and we hear from past competitors that that team bond is cemented on-site and helps builds a solid foundation for carrying out rescues.”
Groen says the event is made possible by the support of local industry and equipment suppliers such as Sandvik. “The Sandvik involvement has meant that we have had mining equipment at the event for the first time,” he says. “We try to simulate scenarios and incidents, but actually bringing in the equipment gave a whole level of realism to the event that helps people visualize it. It adds something extra to the event.”
When Malcolm Mauger, global account manager for surface and underground hardrock mining at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology, heard from a customer that the 2016 MERC event was in urgent need of mining equipment to stage rescue scenarios, he immediately wanted to help.
After meeting with competition organizers, Sandvik agreed to supply a mining truck, an underground drill and a loader for the event, marking the first time that mining equipment had appeared. A number of Sandvik staff also volunteered to attend the event to answer any questions from the general public. “The loader was used in a simulation where a car had crashed under it and the teams had to extract a person out of the vehicle,” Mauger says. “The simulation for the drill involved someone who had had their arm pulled off from the feed to the boom and how to deal with that.”
Mauger says while Sandvik focuses on using safety to prevent accidents and MERC focuses on what to do if an accident does occur, both organizations take the issue extremely seriously. “All the simulations at MERC are meticulously planned months in advance by experts up until the simulations are carried out on the day,” he says. “Even after the simulations are carried out, they are reviewed to see what learning can be taken for the next year’s event.”