The annual Mine Rescue Competition puts emergency skills on display, and Richard Church knows first hand how that readiness can translate into saving a life.

While working for Baffinland Iron Mines several years ago, one of Church’s co-workers suffered a heart attack at the remote Nunavut mine site. At 2:30 a.m., Church and four others immediately began several gruelling hours of chest compressions and artificial ventilation.

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“We lost him and brought him back and continued working on him until 10 o’clock in the morning when we were able to get him medevaced off site,” Church recalled. “It was a long go, but we weren’t really willing to give up on him.”

His co-worker survived.

Church has since moved on to De Beers’ Gahcho Kue diamond mine where he’s emergency response co-ordinator and captain of the company’s mine rescue team. Under his leadership, along with that of fellow trainer Jon Gale, De Beers captured the overall surface trophy at the 2019 Mine Rescue Competition in Yellowknife. It’s a distinction they’ve claimed for three consecutive years. Not only that, the Gahcho Kue squad travelled to Fernie, B.C. in September and came away with the overall surface trophy at the National Western Region Mine Rescue competition, which pitted them against the top teams from Western Canada and the northwestern United States.

The NWT Mine Rescue Competition, which was launched in 1957, sees a total of six teams face off in surface or underground events like rope rescues and rappelling, firefighting, searching in smoky conditions, first aid, testing equipment, running an obstacle course and written exams.

“By the time they’re done all seven events, they’re pretty wiped out,” Church said of the competitors.

Dan Beaulieu competes in the 2019 Mine Rescue competition for Team Gahcho Kue. photo courtesy of Workers Safety and Compensation Commission

Gahcho Kue chose its eight-member Mine Rescue Competition crew – six starters and two alternates – from among the 55-person emergency response team. Tryouts begin each January when training sessions consume a full week. Then, as the competition draws closer and the team is pared down, training ramps up to two weeks and finally three weeks in the month leading up to the early June competition.

“They’re 12-hour days. It’s long,” Church said of the training sessions.

Over at the rival Diavik diamond mine, David Alexander and fellow emergency response team (ERT) adviser Richard Kretzschmar share the duties of overseeing the 70 ERT staff and prepping the mine rescue team. They strive to retain some experienced team members but also encourage newcomers.

“It is a great opportunity for new members to get some intensive training that helps advance their ERT knowledge and experience, training that would otherwise take years to accumulate through regular training,” said Alexander, who, like Kretzschmar, has been involved in mine rescue for more than 30 years.

Wearing full gear and carrying a basket stretcher for Team Diavik are Jared MacInnis, left, and Derek Twerdochlib. Diavik claimed the overall underground trophy at the 2019 Mine Rescue competition in Yellowknife. photo courtesy of Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission

Trainees must commit to 12-hour days and are also expected to do extra reading, studying and practising. Although Diavik earned the best overall underground trophy in Yellowknife this year and last year, winning at the Mine Rescue Competition isn’t the only objective, according to Alexander.

“It gives us the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other teams, and it is a good indicator of how well our training program is working at our site,” he explained, adding that Diavik has a mutual aid agreement with other mines in the territories. “In the event of a large or prolonged event or crisis at one site, they can call on other mines to come and assist. The mines get together annually and complete a mutual aid exercise at one of the mine sites so that we can train together… it is amazing how well (the mine staff) all work together.”

Church can attest to the strong bonds among ERT personnel. He has trained more than 300 people over the past two decades. He said he remains in contact with them.

“It truly is a big family,” Church said. “The funny thing about working these jobs is it’s 14 days in, 14 out, you become family just with your co-workers alone. But when you become (an emergency) response member, you bleed and cry and sweat with these guys.”

Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...

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