Introduction

The concept of Mine Rescue Stations had its origins in Britain, through a Royal Commission into coal mine safety,  following a major French mine disaster in 1907 which caused the deaths of over 1000 men. The Commission reported over the years 1907 to 1911, with its major recommendations embodied in the new Coal Mines Act 0f 1911.  That Act mandated the establishment of mine rescue stations within 10 miles of any mine employing more than 100 persons. (A previous Royal Commission had made similar recommendations for rescue stations some 25 years previously.)  The response to the Act was rapid, and within 7 years 47 stations had been set up in Britain, ten of which, besides training mineworkers in safety and rescue, had permanent full time rescue teams attached.(1)

With the rapid growth of coalmining in Australia, it was not surprising that similar developments followed there.  In 1909 the Queensland Department of Mines arranged to have a Mine Rescue organisation established to train men in mines rescue.  In 1910 a Committee was appointed to establish a Mines Rescue Brigade in conjunction with the existing Ambulance Services and the Inspectors of Mines.  The group was based at North Ipswich (2), and members of the Brigade were coalminers and current members of the Ambulance Service.

In 1915 the Queensland Mining Act was amended to make provision for a Mines Rescue organisation and a Rescue Station was erected in that same year at North Ipswich, on property occupied by the Queensland Ambulance Brigade.  It was not until the 1970-80 period that fully equipped Rescue Stations were erected in the developing coal mining centres in the State.

In NSW, explosions occurred in 1887 and 1902 in the Bulli and Mount Kembla collieries, and in 1923 an explosion and fire occurred at the Bellbird colliery in Newcastle.  Each of these incidents resulted in mine workers losing their lives, and in the absence of any form of organised rescue system, a number of well-intentioned persons lost their lives in attempting rescues.  This state of affairs highlighted the urgent need to establish a Mines Rescue organisation in NSW. 

In 1925 the NSW Mines Rescue Act came into force, authorising the establishment of Mine Rescue Stations at Bellambi (South Coast), Boolaroo (Newcastle), Abermain (Maitland) and Lithgow and included provisions for a Committee to be established in each area, comprised of members from the colliery proprietors.  The funding of the operation at each Station was provided by a levy on each ton of coal produced from all collieries being provided with the services of the Rescue Station located in their area.

Illawarra: The Southern Mines Rescue Station

The Rescue Station facility was completed during 1927 on the corner of Keerong Avenue and the Princes Highway at Bellambi, and included residences for the Station Superintendent and the Instructor.  The Instructor and members of the Permanent Corps, took up their duties in June 1927, and immediately commenced the training of a number of men selected from the mines, completing that task in August 1927.  In 1928 thirty-eight men employed at the collieries had completed their training in the use of the Proto self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and a total of thirty-eight Proto units had been purchased.  Fifteen of these units were located at the Rescue Station, and remaining twenty-three at mines in the area. 

The Rescue Station operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week.  It provided mine rescue support to all mines in the area, ongoing training and certification of mine volunteer personnel in mine rescue, and regular maintenance of rescue plant and support equipment held in readiness at both the Station and at each mine.

The original Station facilities included an administration building, three lecture halls, apparatus room, and rescue training rooms.  Over time, the buildings and training facilities were modernised and upgraded to meet the changing needs of the industry and the increased number of mines required to be serviced by the Station.  These upgrades included a fire fighting gallery, humidity training chamber, an instrument repair and calibration facility, a mobile gas laboratory and several fully equipped purpose built road vehicles, permanently garaged at the Rescue Station. 

Rescue Station Office Building & Emergency Vehicles at Garage

The training gallery was constructed to replicate a typical mine roadway in both dimensions and surroundings, and the training sessions in this gallery included the setting of wooden roof supports and pit props, while wearing SCBA.  Windows were provided for the training officer to observe each trainee at work and take action to remove any person/s in distress whilst training in the Breathing Apparatus. At a later time a fire gallery was built, to train teams in fighting a fire in the underground workings of a mine. 

In the 1960s the Mines Rescue Act and Regulations were amended to require every coal mine to provide and maintain a Rescue and First-aid Room for the storage of rescue apparatus, and a stock of first-aid equipment and supplies.  This facility was required to be under the supervision of an appointed competent person, holding a current First -Aid Certificate.

The Mutual Assistance Scheme

In about 1960 a Mutual Assistance Scheme was adopted, with each colliery nominating four teams to train several times a year, at both the Rescue Station and underground at selected collieries.  This scheme involved neighbouring colliery Rescue Teams, complete with their equipment, being called to a colliery in the event of an emergency incident, to participate in the rescue operations or to be available in a standby role.  This arrangement enabled the permanent Rescue Station staff to move at an appropriate time, into a supervisory role in the management of the incident and 

  • call on their  Communications and Gas Analysis support groups to join them, and
  • assign Colliery Marshalls to enforce security measures, and 
  • direct rescue teams and personnel to locations on the surface and underground. 

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus 

From the outset, there was a need to provide self-contained breathing apparatus that could be worn by trained rescue men in an atmosphere contaminated with poisonous gases, or with insufficient oxygen to support life, following a mine explosion and or fire.

The Siebe Gorman Self Contained Rescue Unit, more commonly known by its trade name ‘’Proto’’ was initially chosen, as it was the only unit approved by the N.S.W. Mines Department.  The Proto was a ‘rebreather’ device designed to provide long duration air supply to persons in a hazardous atmosphere. The equipment provided a sealed breathing environment in which exhaled CO2 was absorbed by a chemical, and its volume replaced with an equivalent amount of oxygen stored at pressure in the device.  First used in 1880, the early equipment was further developed by the British firm Siebe Gorman into a form usable industrially, with the Proto version supplied from the early 1900s.  The availability of reliable (though cumbersome) self-contained breathing apparatus was key to the safe functioning of mine rescue personnel.

The Proto (Rebreather) Self Contained Breathing ApparatusPhoto courtesy Anthony Appleyard
via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘’Proto’’ remained in service until 1962, when it was replaced by the Drager model BG174 Compressed Oxygen Closed-Circuit Breathing Apparatus.  This more modern unit offered many advantages, not the least of which was it being carried on the back of the user, and not the chest as was the case with the Proto unit.

Draeger BG 174 Self Contained Breathing EquipmentImage:  US NIOSH

Early rescue teams entering an incident area underground carried with them a canary in a cage and an oil flame safety lamp.  The behaviour of the canary, a bird more susceptible to the presence of carbon monoxide than humans, was closely observed at all times by the team members.  The oil flame safety lamp was also observed, as changes in the colour and height of the flame indicated the presence of methane, and a decrease in height and a flickering of the flame, a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere.  When either of these changes was observed, the rescue team would commence use of the SCBA, or retreat from that area. Other rescue team responsibilities included the marking of the route being followed by the team in the disaster area, and noting the time and location of any evidence found to enable a comprehensive report of the incident to be prepared following the incident. 

The Annual Competition

As a another opportunity to both practise and display the skills of mines rescue teams a competition is held each year involving teams from each mine taking part in a mock rescue incident, prepared by Mines Rescue Station staff, and carried out at the Rescue Station or at a mine site.  Invitations are extended to other rescue stations in Lithgow, Cessnock, Boolaroo in NSW and Booval Queensland to participate in this competition. This event leads to one rescue group being honoured as the national champion of the Australian Mines Rescue Competition.

Self-Rescuers and Supporting Escape Equipment

Following an underground fire at the Bulli Colliery in 1956 in which four men died legislation was enacted by the Mines Department to require every person underground to carry a self-rescuer unit on their person at all times.  This device provides the user with the opportunity to escape from an area containing carbon monoxide gas. 

The canister containing the self-rescue unit is worn on the waist belt and should an incident such as a fire occur, the person can open the canister, and attach the self-rescuer to the face and mouth.  The device is fitted with a mouthpiece and a nose-clip for the person to breathe using the self-rescuer, with the inhaled air passing through an internal filter which converts carbon monoxide into  carbon dioxide, enabling the person wearing the device to evacuate from the area of concern. The self-rescuer has the capacity to operate under certain conditions for two hours. 

Additional support facilities that include a guidance system comprised of a knotted rope fitted with directional cones, have been installed to support persons escaping from an area in conditions of poor visibility, and the introduction of compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA) Stations.  Persons wearing a self-rescue unit can retreat to a CABA Station, discard the self-rescuer and don a rescue kit, comprised of a cylinder of compressed air and a full face mask. The compressed air supply stored in the kit can be “topped up” at CABA Stations, strategically located along a defined exit route underground, to the surface of the mine.  

Transition of the Mines Rescue Stations to Coal Services Pty Ltd. 

In 2002 the Coal Industry Act was gazetted in NSW creating the company Coal Services Pty. Ltd. to undertake the functions previously performed by the Joint Coal Board and the NSW Mines Rescue Board.  Coal Services’ statutory functions outlined in the Act include, but are not limited to, worker’s compensation, occupational health and rehabilitation services, collection of industry statistics and the provision of mines rescue emergency services and training to the NSW coal industry.  The four existing Mines Rescue Stations at Bellambi (Southern coalfield), Boolaroo (Newcastle coalfield) Abermain (South Maitland) and Lithgow (Western coalfield) have been replaced by Coal Services facilities established in each of those areas. A Board of Directors, together with a management team manage the affairs of the Coal Services Group. 

In early 2008 the Rescue, Training and assosciated services provided by the Southern Mines Rescue Station at Bellambi were transferred from the Bellambi site to the newly erected Coal Services Pty Ltd. building, located adjacent to the Princes Highway, Woonona.  This building includes administration facilities, plant and equipment provided by Coal Services Pty Ltd with a mine-like Training Gallery beneath the building, and state of the art training facilities equipment and lecture rooms and administration offices. 

Aerial view of Coal Services Princes Highway Woonona building complex

References

  1. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_Mines_Act_1911 
  2. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mine_rescue
  3. Ipswich City Council http://www.ipswich.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/9811/mining.pdf 
  4. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebreather 
  5. Coal services http://www.coalservices.com.au/aboutus.aspx//HistoryMinesRescue.aspx 

RAC 17092016