Honing skills at the Saskatchewan Mine Rescue Competition

The competency of mine rescue teams to act under immense pressure can mean the difference between life and death, but teams rarely get an opportunity to practice their skills until an actual disaster occurs – except at mine rescue competitions. In June, the Saskatchewan Mining Association held its 49th annual Mine Rescue Skills Competition, attended by 700 participants. As the association prepares for its celebratory 50th event, Heidi Vella asks how such tournaments help fine-tune fast reactions in dangerous situations.


Mine rescues are highly specialised. Often working in remote regions, rescuers must be firefighters, paramedics, problem solvers and team players.

Most will need to learn these skills in addition to their full-time job as miners, mill operators, labourers or engineers, but hope never to be called on to use them. But in case they are, mine rescue contests, held throughout the world, are designed to sharpen mine rescue teams’ response and competency.

At the 49th Mine Rescue Skills Competition, held annually by the Saskatchewan Mining Association (SMA), 700 rescuers in 15 different teams faced five different tests, involving firefighting, first aid, solving underground and surface problems, as well as a proficiency problem.

SMA President Pam Schwann and James Ferstl, incoming chair for the 2018 50th anniversary competition, as well as senior manager of health safety and security at Mosaic mining company, discuss the importance of such events.

Heidi Vella: Does competing against their peers help mine rescue teams improve their performance?

James Ferstl (JF): It definitely pushes teams harder because there is that competitive component; as well as the competition element, we are competitive mining companies, so it does push them out of their comfort zone. Though we like to emphasise that it is not about winning but about testing their skills in an environment where there is a tonne of pressure; in our minds, this gets them as close as possible to an actual event.

It is also a fantastic opportunity to share leadership skills and other aspects that go into managing and operating a good emergency response programme. Our mine rescue teams are very dedicated and even though they are still being paid to do this job, that is not their driving force, they do it because they want to make a difference.

HV: What skills are judges looking for throughout the competition? 

JF: We liken it to the ballet; they need to be dead-on in every movement they make, every action they take. In real-life scenarios, it is not necessarily that critical but when we are talking about points and the overall winners, our judges need to make sure everyone is doing things consistently and that there is a high level of safety for the rescue teams and for the causalities. It really speaks to the communication and leadership of the teams. Every one of the teams has a captain and they need to communicate effectively with the team members. The team that has the best communication and leadership tends to come out on top because they were guided well. 

"Many mine sites are in rural Saskatchewan where there is no full-time fire department or paramedics."

Pam Schwann: The overall winner is determined by aggregate points, so the teams at the end of the competition are looking to be the overall winner because that speaks to their collective skills.

HV: There is a community aspect to the event, why is this important?

JF: The families of the employees find comfort in knowing these teams are so well trained. It is a very tight-knit network. In a 50-mile radius of one of our mine sites you will find one of our employees that are on a volunteer fire department or part of the ambulance service – they are very much engaged and passionate about what they do.

PS: Many mine sites are in rural Saskatchewan where there is no full-time fire department or paramedics. So, usually, because the mine teams are so highly trained in first response, they tend to be the community leaders who are involved in the local firefighting and first responder issues within their home community, when they are not at the mine site. It’s a real passion for them.

HV: Do you have many women participating in the competition?

PS: As the competition evolves we do see more female participants. I think the diversity and inclusion question is something all member companies are making a priority and that includes within the mine rescue competition. I am sure if we did a dive into each of the mine sites you would have a woman on one of the teams, but it is only the winning team at each site that makes it to the provincial competition, so we don’t necessarily see everyone at the competition. There was a woman this year who has been leading their competition team for quite a few years now.

HV: Considering the tough fiscal environment, how do you maintain a high level of training when it might be tempting to cut mine rescue budgets?

JF: It is certainly a balancing act and we do consider our budget on an annual basis. But safety is of the upmost importance and we certainly want to ensure we are thoughtful when putting together our budgets for emergency response training.

Maybe, for a particular year, we don’t get the latest and greatest piece of equipment, we make do with what we have got, but we don’t let off on the training aspect. There are also provincial regulations for our underground operations which state teams must receive a minimum of 40 hours training per year. For our surface teams, we provide the same level of training and there is no such requirement.

HV: Is there a big difference between mine rescue training for surface and underground mining?

JF: The training that we provide for our surface and underground mines is very similar. When you are considering an underground environment some of the things that you respond to are certainly more critical; having a fire underground is not a good thing, so we make sure there are proactive systems in place, like vehicle fire suppression systems on our equipment that go off automatically if there is a fire situation. But for the most part it is very similar with some subtle differences.

HV: What are the specific challenges of remote mine rescue?

JF: At remote mines it’s important to be more self-sufficient. There are onsite nurses that are fly-in and fly-out and firefighting equipment, the sort you would likely see in a city. There are many things we need to be proactive about, such as ensuring there is always a mine rescue response person or team member onsite at all times.

We also have mutual aid agreements with competitor mines so that if our operation or their operation is affected by an emergency we will help each other out. We are always willing to help one another, whether it be with equipment or personnel.

HV: The competition is 50 years old next year, how has it evolved over that time?

PS: Over the last few years we have started to recognise retired members of emergency response teams nominated by the different sites and I think this highlights the admiration by teams of their peers and the work of those individuals.

We now have younger, maybe more inexperienced, team members because we have gone through a retirement phase. We see more of a handover of knowledge to a younger cohort and more younger families.